AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 27, Number 2, 2018


Cocaine Makes Brain Cells Cannibalize Themselves in Mice

Significant new evidence has surfaced to support the theory that high doses of cocaine kills brain cells by triggering overactive autophagy, a process in which cells digest their own insides. A summary of the study, which also found signs of autophagy in the brain cells of mice whose mothers received cocaine while pregnant, was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We performed autopsies to find out how cells die from high doses of cocaine,” said a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “That information gave us immediate insight into how we might use a known compound to interfere with that process and prevent the damage.” By measuring changes in the levels of proteins that control each cell death program and by observing the cells’ physical changes, the team saw clearly that cocaine causes neuronal cell death through out-of-control autophagy. That confirmed previous results from two other groups that found cocaine-induced autophagy in astrocytes and microglia, which are neuron support cells. “A cell is like a household that is constantly generating trash,” said a lead author of the study. “Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash — it’s usually a good thing. But cocaine makes the housekeeper throw away really important things, like mitochondria, which produce energy for the cell.” The researchers noted that because cocaine works exclusively to modulate autophagy versus other cell death programs, there’s a better chance that they can develop new targeted therapeutics to suppress its toxicity. To read more about this study, click here.

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