How Does Cocaine Work? It's Partly In Your Genes

This blog post is archived and is no longer being updated. For the latest content, please visit the main Drugs & Health Blog page.

You probably know that your genes help make you who you are. Except for identical twins, everyone has a slightly different set of genes, and when our genes interact with our environment, that’s what makes us unique individuals.

Genes give us different hair, eye, and skin colors, and affect our height and weight. Genes also affect the inside of our bodies, and influence how organs like the heart, lungs, and even the brain work. But did you know that genes also affect how you behave? And the opposite is also true: how you behave can affect your genes!

Your lifestyle and your genes

Scientists have learned that genes are affected by our lifestyles: what we eat and drink, how much we exercise, how much we sleep. These factors influence how genes are expressed—or turned “on” or “off”—in our bodies. That can have pretty major effects on health.

Currently, scientists are studying how taking cocaine affects your genes. Scientists have known for a while that using cocaine over a drawn-out period can lead to permanent changes in the brain. Teen brains may be especially vulnerable, because they'e still developing. But what causes those changes to happen?

In May 2009, a NIDA-funded study found one piece of the puzzle—and it has to do with, yep, genes.

Reducing the cocaine "reward"

For the first time, scientists have discovered that mice given repeated cocaine exposure “turn on” genes in certain regions of the brain. These genes, called sirtuins (pronounced sir-TOO-ins), are activated by long-term exposure to cocaine, and it looks like they contribute to the development of addiction.

When the scientists prevented sirtuin activation in the brains of lab mice, the mice didn’t find cocaine to be as good, or rewarding. To say it another way, without turning these genes “on,” cocaine couldn’t give the mice a “high” anymore, and the mice didn’t want the drug as much.

These results are pretty exciting, because if scientists could develop a treatment based on these genes, it might help people suffering from cocaine addiction. That kind of treatment is a long way off—but at least now the scientists know how cocaine affects genes, and how that affects the brain. And that’s a good start.

Want to learn more? Check out the blog post “Say What? Epigenetics.”

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

Related Articles

Say What? “Relapse”
July 2018

A person who's trying to stop using drugs can sometimes start using them again. Fortunately, treatment can help to lower...