Brain Reward System May be Linked to Cocaine Addiction

New research suggests that people who use cocaine may be less able to refrain from use due to enlarged basal ganglia, or reward systems, in their brains. Dr. Karen Ersche, of the University of Cambridge, and colleagues, conducted a study on 60 people with cocaine dependency and 60 without. They examined the brains of the participants and discovered that longtime cocaine abuse caused reduction of grey matter. They also discovered that the enlarged basal ganglia found in those with cocaine dependency was not related to their cocaine use, but may have been present before. The researchers believe that this abnormality in brain structure may make these people more likely to abuse cocaine. “This research gives us important insight into why some people are more vulnerable to drug addiction,” said Ersche, of the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge. “Not only is this important for the future development of more effective therapeutic interventions for people who have become dependent on drugs, it will also inform improved strategies to prevent drug addiction in the first place.”

People who use cocaine report feeling compelled to use the drug. Ersche added, “People with cocaine dependence describe their out-of-control drug use as a ‘compulsion to use cocaine. Our current work has laid the foundation for a better understanding of cocaine dependence and why this compulsion occurs.” The researchers also noted that their study showed that cocaine use can often lead to impaired attention in those who abuse for extended periods of time. “Our findings are important because they show a clear relationship between the brain, the duration of cocaine use and some of the common attention problems that people with cocaine dependence report. These data show that cocaine dependence is a disorder of the brain, which is very relevant information for the treatment of people who are trying to beat their addiction,” said Ersche.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Miss Vickie

    Miss Vickie

    June 25th, 2011 at 12:32 PM

    I wonder if this could be the case with other addictions as well? I t would make sense that if one drug is affected this way then others could be too. Don’t addicts other than cocaune addicts feel that compulsion to use? And how about gamblers? Don’t they have those same urges too that they say they can’t control? definitely worth researchers looking into.

  • Lacey R. Dixon

    Lacey R. Dixon

    June 25th, 2011 at 2:06 PM

    So if a person has an enlarged basal ganglia, they are more likely to remain ensnared by cocaine than one who does not, right? Then we can use that information to pinpoint those more predisposed to long term cocaine addiction. Interesting how much we can glean from the brain’s structure alone.

  • Jesse Graeme

    Jesse Graeme

    June 25th, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    And if a severely addicted cocaine user doesn’t display that enlargement, what’s ascertained as the cause then? The research doesn’t state they all had that.

    Further investigation into the root causes of cocaine addiction is required. It would be prudent not to put all our eggs in one basket and focus upon one possibility.

  • Jonathan


    June 26th, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    The pleasure that you get from a cocaine high is unlike anything else that you will ever experience from what I hear. It is no wonder that so many people remian addicted to it even after seeking treatment over and over again. I sincerely hope that this kind of new information can lead doctors and those who work and help in the addiction field to make so real head way with their patients.

  • Pip


    June 27th, 2011 at 4:32 AM

    Any chance for testing for this at an early age to use as a preventive measure?



    June 27th, 2011 at 8:02 PM

    While it’s easy to say quit drugs or say no to drugs in the first place,I think some of us are just built differently.It’s not easy for some people to quit as it is for others.Everybody’s biology is different and that definitely plays a role.So it’s not just an excuse when someone says they can’t quit.That’s how it is for them.But what CAN be done for them is that they need to try harder than others and put in a lot more effort than others to be able to quit.

  • Bobby V. Allen

    Bobby V. Allen

    June 29th, 2011 at 6:30 PM

    You know if we didn’t spend so much money funding studies like this for cocaine junkies we’d be a step closer to free healthcare for all. What about us ordinary folks that never touched drugs in our lives? How about looking out for us instead?

  • Autumn Robinson

    Autumn Robinson

    June 29th, 2011 at 7:14 PM

    If it wasn’t so cost prohibitive, we could brain scan everybody early on and find possible problems before they even have a chance to manifest–isn’t that a good idea?

    I don’t see any downsides anyway.

  • Loren Wright

    Loren Wright

    July 2nd, 2011 at 7:41 PM

    @Autumn– Picture this: you’re told that your son may become addicted to cocaine or suffer from extreme depression. What do you do? There’s nothing you can do to change that.

    And how do you talk to him about that? Tell him he’s more likely than everyone else to get addicted to hard drugs? I don’t see that conversation going down well.

  • wendy harver

    wendy harver

    July 2nd, 2011 at 7:51 PM

    @Loren –You reinforce my belief that parents don’t have any guts anymore when I read comments like yours.

    Whether it goes down well isn’t what matters. What matters in that hypothetical conversation is that he understands he has a higher susceptibility than most to becoming addicted. That may be all it takes to keep him clear of trying drugs for life.

    If it was you, wouldn’t you want to know that before you did drugs rather than after??

  • Vera S.

    Vera S.

    July 2nd, 2011 at 9:17 PM

    What kind of strategies prevent drug addiction other than keeping drugs away from people altogether? Drugs are always in demand by users, and dealers will always be waiting there in the shadows to fulfill that demand with or without laws in place. So what can be done?

  • LFR


    July 3rd, 2011 at 11:08 PM

    @Vera S. : Not a lot is the answer beyond education on the dangers. Another plan is to simply legalize it and hope users get completely bored of whatever drug has just been legalized.

    Look at Amsterdam-citizens and visitors can openly do and buy drugs, yet their drug addiction rates are reportedly quite low. Go figure.

  • Jeremy Keach

    Jeremy Keach

    July 3rd, 2011 at 11:20 PM

    It’s true that drugs will have a physical effect. You can often spot those who snort cocaine. They are the ones with half a nose missing right at the bridge. A few years of meth will completely ruin how you look.

    I will never see the appeal of drug use. It messes you up mentally, emotionally and physically. And you get to spend all your money for such privileges. It’s a mug’s game.

  • Linda Murphy

    Linda Murphy

    July 3rd, 2011 at 11:53 PM

    How about we simply destroy any plant or seed that drugs are engineered from until the species is extinct? Get rid of them at source once and for all. It’s not like the human race hasn’t driven flora in nature to the point of extinction before. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

    Of course many drugs are made in labs now so the country would continue to have a drug war to fight against, albeit a lesser one.

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