High doses of cocaine can cause the brain to eat itself, research suggests.
A mouse study found that the drug can trigger out-of-control autophagy — a process by which cells literally digest themselves.
When it is properly regulated, autophagy provides a valuable clean-up service —getting rid of unwanted debris that is dissolved away by enzymes within cell “pockets”.
Prasun Guha, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US, who led the research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said: “A cell is like a household that is constantly generating trash.
“Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash — it’s usually a good thing.
"But cocaine makes the housekeeper throw away really important things, like mitochondria, which produce energy for the cell.”
The scientists carried out autopsies which showed clear signs of autophagy-induced cell death in the brains of mice given high doses of cocaine.
A drug called CGP3466B was able to protect mouse nerve cells from cocaine death due to autophagy.
The drug has already been tested in trials to treat Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease. But more research is needed to find out if it can prevent harmful effects of cocaine.
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