Discovery Fit & Health
Once ingested, crack cocaine goes to work on the brain's ventral tegmental area (VTA) by interfering with dopamine, which controls the body's pleasure response. During enjoyable activities, neurons in the nervous system release dopamine, which binds to adjacent neurons. These neurons transmit signals that produce pleasant feelings. Normally, after such a signal is sent the originating neuron reabsorbs the dopamine with the aid of dopamine transporter proteins. But crack cocaine disrupts this cycle by binding to the dopamine transporter proteins, thus blocking re-absorption. The result is that dopamine levels increase and stimulate the neurons, creating a continuous sensation of euphoria or exhilaration. In crack users, the high can last anywhere from five to 15 minutes.
The side effects can be serious. After crack energizes the user, the troubles begin: The pupils dilate and blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature all increase. The user may feel anxious, irritable or restless. Taken in large enough doses, crack can make the user exceedingly aggressive, paranoid and delusional. Crack can also cause abdominal pains, loss of appetite and nausea. Its use can lead to a heart attack, respiratory failure, seizure or stroke. Crack and alcohol, used together, produce cocaethylene, a toxic and potentially lethal substance that increases blood pressure and heart rate even more than crack does alone.
It's important to underscore such side effects because of the sheer addictiveness of crack cocaine. Its users can become so addicted they can no longer control their cravings for it. When high on crack, the brain destroys dopamine, produces less of it or shuts down dopamine receptors altogether. As a result, habitual crack users become less responsive to it and must constantly increase their doses of crack just to get the same effect. Ultimately, they can't stop using because their brains can no longer function without it.
Fortunately, while crack is very addictive, help is available for those who want to kick the habit. The most common kind of treatment for crack addiction is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Treatment can be administered at both inpatient and outpatient centers. A popular kind of cognitive therapy called contingency management rewards addicts with vouchers for avoiding drugs.
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