Some recreational drug users believe their one-off or occasional drug use safeguards them from developing a serious addiction or habit.
But new research has shown changes in the structure of the brain can appear within hours of taking cocaine – in what they say could be the first steps of drug addiction.
The US-led study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, demonstrated that new brain structures linked to memory and learning began to grow quickly after the drug was taken.
Animal trials conducted on mice linked the changes in the brain with a preference for cocaine, which researchers described as a ‘learning addiction’.
More tiny brain-cell protrusions (or dendritic spines) were detected in mice as soon as two hours after they were injected with their first dose of cocaine, compared to those injected with just water.
New spines are related to memory formation in the brain, so the results suggest new memories being formed around the time of drug use.
“Our images provide clear evidence that cocaine induces rapid gains in new spines, and the more spines the mice gain, the more they show they learned about the drug,” said Linda Wilbrecht, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Berkeley and one of the study’s researchers.
“This gives us a possible mechanism for how drug use fuels further drug-seeking behaviour,” Wilbrecht told reporters of the research’s insights into how addiction occurs.
“These drug-induced changes in the brain may explain how drug-related cues come to dominate decision making in a human drug user,” she argued.
While it is yet unclear how the information can be used to develop a therapy for drug addiction, it does aid our understanding of how the addiction or habit can occur.
The study also highlights that all drug users, including those who abuse drugs recreationally, are at risk of developing an addiction.