During childhood the brain will naturally produce the adequate amounts of nerve cells known as neurons which work to power the main coordination and control functions of the central nervous system. In medical terms, the process of neuron production is known as neurogenesis. During adulthood, neurogenesis essentially comes to a halt in almost all areas of the brain except for a region called the hippocampus, which plays a primary role in certain functions related to memory and learning. According to findings reported in 2011 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, use or abuse of the illegal stimulants cocaine and methamphetamine can interfere with adult neuron growth inside the hippocampus. In turn, disruption of neuron production in this brain region can increase overall risks for the onset of a stimulant addiction.
Neurogenesis is a crucial process in the brain as it helps to populate or re-populate the brain with neurons. These neurons form the core of the communications network that makes the brain the center of all nervous system activity within the rest of the body. The primary period of neuron production occurs before birth during the process of fetal growth and development. The process of neurogenesis also continues during childhood and adolescence in a less extensive form. However, by the time an individual reaches adulthood, the production of new neurons comes to a halt except inside the hippocampus and in a region called the subventricular zone, which is located near fluid-filled chambers in the brain known as the lateral ventricles.
Hippocampus belongs to a pathway called the limbic system together with other crucial structures in the brain. The hippocampus is a paired structure that assumes a resemblance of bananas. The whole of the limbic system plays a prime role in the human ability to experience rewarding or pleasurable sensations. However, as a distinct structure, the hippocampus functions largely as the brain’s center for taking in new memories, arranging those memories and creating an index that makes the newly arranged memories easy to find in the future. Other vital tasks carried out by this brain region include coordinating emotion-based responses to internal or external situations, helping the body orient itself spatially to its surroundings and providing the ability to remember and navigate the details of previously encountered physical environments.
This part of the brain plays very important roles but it can be adversely affected by the use of stimulants and other drugs of leisure. Substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine produce their primary effects inside the brain by boosting the presence of dopamine which is a neurotransmitting chemical that activates the pleasure-producing neurons contained within the limbic system. As stated above the limbic system includes the hippocampus, along with several other brain structures. According to the results of two separate studies published in 2008 in the Journal of Neuroscience and Biological Psychiatry, the presence of either cocaine or methamphetamine alters normal adult neurogenesis inside the hippocampus and damages this region’s ability replenish its neuron supply. It has been found that stimulants as well as other drugs of pleasure interfere with the basic processes of neurogenesis at an early, critical stage known as proliferation. In particular cocaine also interferes with the ability of existing immature neurons to grow into their normal mature forms.
Owing to its vital roles, the hippocampus has since become an area of particular interest, as it is central to many aspects of the addictive process, including relapse to drug taking. A recently appreciated hippocampal neuro-adaptation produced by drugs as diverse as opiates and psycho-stimulants is decreased neurogenesis in the sub-granular zone (SGZ). Stem cell Adult-generated neurons and drug-induced alterations of adult neurogenesis advance our understanding of the complex mechanisms by which opiates and psycho-stimulants affect brain function.
In a research that was done by researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in 2011, the results of this study that examined the addiction risks related to the disruption of normal neurogenesis inside the hippocampus indicated that cocaine abuse led to decreased production of neurons in the hippocampus. During this study, adult rat were deprived of their normal ability to produce new hippocampal neurons. These rats were then given free access to cocaine for four hours a day. When compared to adults rats not robbed of their ability to produce new neurons in the hippocampus, these neurogenesis-impaired rats consistently increased their cocaine intake by 60 percent. The neurogenesis-impaired rats also had a much greater tendency to seek out cocaine between the sanctioned periods of drug access; substance abuse specialists typically view this type of drug-seeking behavior as a critical indicator of a developing drug addiction.
These researchers also measured neurogenesis-impaired rats’ susceptibility to a drug relapse. During the first phase of this stage of testing, the rats were removed from the cages where drug use had taken place, blocked all drug access for a month, and let the rats go through withdrawal. At the end of the month, the rats were returned to their old cages but still received no access to cocaine. Compared to rats with normal rates of neurogenesis which also went through the same process, the neurogenesis-impaired rats showed more prominent signs of drug craving and a desire to continue drug use as often the case in relapse.
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