New research shows that age-related loss of grey matter in the brain is greater in people who are chronic users of cocaine.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge scanned the brains of 120 people who were about the same age and had similar IQs. Half were dependent on cocaine, while the other 60 had no history of substance abuse.

The researchers found that cocaine users lost about 3.08 ml brain volume per year, almost twice the rate of healthy volunteers, who only lost about 1.69 ml per year. The accelerated age-related decline was most prominent in the prefrontal and temporal cortex, important regions of the brain associated with attention, decision-making, and self-regulation, as well as memory.

“As we age, we all lose grey matter,” said Dr. Karen Ersche of the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI) at the University of Cambridge.

“However, what we have seen is that chronic cocaine users lose grey matter at a significantly faster rate, which could be a sign of premature aging. Our findings provide new insight into why the cognitive deficits typically seen in old age have frequently been observed in middle-aged chronic users of cocaine.”

The findings highlight the need for preventative strategies, she noted.

“Young people taking cocaine today need to be educated about the long-term risk of aging prematurely,” she said.

Source: University of Cambridge