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British researchers scanned the brains of 60 people with cocaine dependence and 60 people with no history of substance abuse, and found that those with cocaine dependence had greater levels of age-related loss of brain gray matter.
The cocaine users lost about 3.08 milliliters (ml) of brain volume a year, nearly twice the rate of about 1.69 ml per year seen in the healthy people, the University of Cambridge researchers said.
The increased decline in brain volume in the cocaine users was most noticeable in the prefrontal and temporal cortex, regions associated with attention, decision-making, self-regulation and memory, the investigators noted in a university news release.
"As we age, we all lose gray matter. However, what we have seen is that chronic cocaine users lose gray matter at a significantly faster rate, which could be a sign of premature aging. Our findings therefore provide new insight into why the [mental] deficits typically seen in old age have frequently been observed in middle-aged chronic users of cocaine," Dr. Karen Ersche, of the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at University of Cambridge, said in the news release.
The study is published in the April 25 issue of the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
Cocaine is used by as many as 21 million people worldwide, and about 1 percent of these people become dependent on the drug, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
While the study doesn't conclusively prove cocaine causes brain atrophy and other symptoms of aging, the association is cause for concern, the researchers said.
"Our findings clearly highlight the need for preventative strategies to address the risk of premature aging associated with cocaine abuse. Young people taking cocaine today need to be educated about the long-term risk of aging prematurely," Ersche said.
However, accelerated aging also affects older adults who have abused cocaine and other drugs since early adulthood.
"Our findings shed light on the largely neglected problem of the growing number of older drug users, whose needs are not so well catered for in drug treatment services. It is timely for health care providers to understand and recognize the needs of older drug users in order to design and administer age-appropriate treatments," Ersche said.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: University of Cambridge, news release, April 24, 2012