In mice, high doses of cocaine cause brain cells to eat themselves, researchers report.
The Johns Hopkins University scientists also found such destruction in the brain cells of mice whose mothers were given cocaine while pregnant.
However, they also identified a possible antidote to this process.
In their laboratory work, the investigators found that high doses of cocaine — the powerful and addictive stimulant — trigger out-of-control autophagy, a process in which cells digest their own insides. Autophagy is typically a normal and vital process that helps keep cells clean.
“We performed ‘autopsies’ to find out how cells die from high doses of cocaine,” said Dr. Solomon Snyder, a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins’ School of Medicine in Baltimore.
“That information gave us immediate insight into how we might use a known compound to interfere with that process and prevent the damage,” he said in a university news release.
The possible antidote is an experimental compound dubbed CGP3466B. It has already been tested in unsuccessful clinical trials to treat Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and is known to be safe for people, the researchers said.
However, it will take many more years of research to determine if the compound can prevent cocaine-related damage in brain cells, first in mice, then in humans, the study authors said.
Also, results attained in animal studies are often not replicated in humans.
The study was published online Jan. 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about cocaine.