Baby Boomers and "Cocaine Brain" - images show damage

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Dr. Karen Ersche has a reputation for using brain imaging to show, in a dramatic way, the damage caused by drugs. She is a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge and her latest research was discussed in a recent issue of Science magazine.

"Drug abuse is typically considered a young people's problem," said Ersche in the article, “…If our young people are aging prematurely due to drug abuse, the public health implications could be huge."

Youthful abuse could have serious consequences

And that’s the worry. Baby boomers who used cocaine are now reaching their retirement years. If they have brain damage beyond their physical ages, this would represent an unforeseen rise in dementia and other mental problems associated with aging. Cocaine was most popular in the 1980s, just when the baby boomers were at an age and an income status that made the drug appealing. The spike in use during the disco days may just now be playing out as this population bubble reaches their sixties.

Tasks related to cocaine use that suffer include memory, the ability to focus attention and sustain it, and reaction times. All of these are also associated with aging.

Dr. Ersche studied 120 current and former users of cocaine, with about half meeting the criteria of addiction. These people were long term users (a decade or more) and tested positive for cocaine in their systems. The age range went from 18 to 50 and the damage seen was progressive and, is thought to be irreversible. Significantly, brain volume was reduced in the cocaine using population as well. Brain shrinkage is also a normal part of aging, and this seems to be another effect accelerated by drug use.

Researchers ruled out alcohol abuse as a cause in this study, an important consideration because drinking is so often associated with cocaine use.

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