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Bringing the Power of Science to Bear on Drug Abuse and Addiction

3: This is literally the brain on drugs

Images of the brain on drugs - described below Photo courtesy of Nora Volkow, Ph.D. Mapping cocaine binding sites in human and baboon brain in vivo. Fowler JS, Volkow ND, Wolf AP, Dewey SL, Schlyer DJ, Macgregor, Hitzemann R, Logan J, Bendreim B, Gatley ST, et al. Synapse 1989;4(4):371-377.

When someone gets "high" on cocaine, where does the cocaine go in the brain? With the help of a radioactive tracer, this PET scan shows us a person's brain on cocaine and the area of the brain, highlighted in yellow, where cocaine is "binding" or attaching itself. This PET scan shows us minute by minute, in a time-lapsed sequence, just how quickly cocaine begins affecting a particular area of the brain

We start in the upper left hand corner. You can see that 1 minute after cocaine is administered to this subject nothing much happens. All areas of the brain are functioning normally. But after 3 to 4 minutes [the next scan to the right], we see some areas starting to turn yellow. These areas are part of a brain structure called the striatum [stry-a-tum] that is the main target in the brain bound and activated by cocaine.

At the 5- to 8-minute interval, we see that cocaine is affecting a large area of the brain. After that, the drug's effects begin to wear off. At the 9- to 10-minute point, the high feeling is almost gone. Unless the abuser takes more cocaine, the experience is over in about 20 to 30 minutes.

Scientists are doing research to find out if the striatum produces the "high feeling" and controls our feelings of pleasure and motivation. One of the reasons scientists are curious about specific areas of the brain affected by drugs such as cocaine is to develop treatments for people who become addicted to these drugs. Scientists hope to find the most effective way to change an addicted brain back to normal functioning.

This page was last updated January 2007

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NIDA. (2007, January 5). Bringing the Power of Science to Bear on Drug Abuse and Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/bringing-power-science-to-bear-drug-abuse-addiction

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