How Cocaine Affects the Brain

Cocaine is produced from the leaves of the coca plant. Cultivated in large quantities in South America, the drug is mixed with an array of chemicals including sulfiric acid, kerosene, caustic soda and cement to produce a liquid. This then is boiled to get a more solid form of cocaine. Learn more about how cocaine affects the brain.

Cocaine and the Brain

Inside the brain, cocaine acts upon a part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Cocaine interferes with the activity of dopamine neurotransmitters, which are used by neurons to communicate. Dopamine acts both as an inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitter. Normally, dopamine is re-absorbed via the dopamine transporter by the neuron that produced it. Cocaine blocks the transporter and, as a result, dopamine builds. Additionally, cocaine alters the level of serotonin (neurotransmitter responsible for maintaining mood balance) in the brain. Norepinephrine also increases where the following effects may be seen:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased body temperature
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased rate of respiration

How quickly cocaine reaches the brain depends on method of administration. Powder forms are usually snorted or injected. When snorted, the drug takes about three minutes to reach the brain. When powder cocaine is injected into the veins, it may take 14 seconds to reach the brain. Smoking cocaine can reach the brain in seven seconds.

Crack Cocaine vs Powder

Crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same drug. The same biological effect may be seen but also differs in chemical composition. Powder cocaine contains hydrochloride salt, which prevents it from being burned. Salt can be removed by mixing cocaine with water or baking soda. Crack has a lower melting point than powder cocaine. The name ‘crack’ is derived from the sound the drug makes when being smoked.


Another characteristic of cocaine is the body goes through immediate drug withdrawal, even following one use. A cocaine high may last for up to an hour (depending on quality of the drug). When cocaine’s effects wane, dopamine’s levels become normal but may be experienced as not present and the side effect is an individual who feels ‘low’ for a short time. Continual use of cocaine rewires the brain to produce less dopamine and serotonin thus relying on cocaine to produce the effects for them. Depression, anxiety and other issues may arise as a result.

The Villa helps individuals who are stuck in the cycle of addiction to crack cocaine or other drugs. Call us to find out how we can help you navigate recovery and feel healthy again.