Crack is a smoke-able form of cocaine. As a form of cocaine, the effects of crack are pretty much the same, but its compressed, rock-like structure means that it produces generally more intense effects.
Finding out about the effects crack has on the brain and how these manifest themselves in the long term helps to understand the wide-ranging risks people expose themselves to with a crack addiction.
Changes in the brain
Drugs of abuse produce their effects by interfering with or mimicking the brain’s natural neurotransmitters. The most commonly impacted chemical messenger is dopamine, and crack use causes a huge increase of dopamine. This is one of the most prominent reward chemicals in the brain, and it produces the sense of euphoria in the individual, which is usually the sensation that drives people to continue using. Crack also causes an increase in norepinephrine, which is an adrenaline-like substance that produces alertness and prepares the body for fight-or-flight style action. The final neurotransmitter influenced by crack use is serotonin, which is thought to be important for mood regulation as well as other essential processes such as sleep and appetite.
The most famous potential long-term effect of cocaine on the brain is psychosis, and it’s more common with crack than with the ordinarily snorted version of the drug. Paranoia is the most widespread psychosis-like symptom of cocaine abuse, occurring in as many as 84% of those who use the drug. This is like a precursor to more severe psychosis symptoms, which include delusions and hallucinations and occur in between 29% and 53% of users. It’s important to note that these effects become more and more likely with increased, long-term exposure to the drug. Dopamine is thought to play an important role in the development of psychosis.
The fact that serotonin is thought to play an important part in mood regulation means that extensive crack consumption can lead to severe and debilitating depression. The fact that the condition is commonly treated with serotonin-regulating drugs shows why crack’s interference with its levels could result in depression. Crack’s effects are fairly short-lived, which means that individuals will usually take it pretty frequently, which makes the effects on neurotransmitters even more severe. In laymen’s terms, using up the body’s supply of “happy” chemicals through drugs leads to a deficit, which persists until they are gradually replenished.
As with the majority of the negative psychological effects, the propensity for violent behavior is more likely with crack than cocaine in powder form. This is something of a consequence of psychosis, with 55% of those with the condition also displaying violent behaviors. The violence could be undirected, simply resulting from the combination of dopamine-induced psychosis and the effects of norepinephrine (which primes the body to respond to threats), or it could be related to addiction. The vast majority of violent crimes reported in a telephone survey of users were committed in order to get more crack. If combined with depression, this violent tendency could lead to suicide or other self-harm.
Delirium is a frenzied, hallucinatory, and potentially fatal state that results from crack’s effects on the trio of neurotransmitters. It is essentially a combination of the effects noted previously, with violent outbursts, psychosis, and hallucinations all occurring alongside intense confusion. This is unfortunately common in cases of fatal overdose, and is generally typified by rapid changes in the state of the autonomic nervous system. This is potentially fatal because this system regulates important functions like the heart rate.
Although this is an obvious long-term consequence of crack use, its wide-ranging consequences should not be ignored. Addiction ultimately occurs because the brain cannot function effectively with the excessive levels of neurotransmitters created by crack consumption. In order to protect its functioning, the brain will begin to produce less of the chemicals itself, and will also remove some of the all-important receptors which allow them to have an effect if the drug is used regularly. The result of this is that the individual does not feel normal without taking the drug, and therefore needs even more of it to create a euphoric effect.
This has several serious consequences. One of which is that discontinuing use of the drug results in withdrawal symptoms, which are extremely unpleasant for the user and encourage them to take crack again. The natural reward circuit of the brain has also been subverted, so activities the individual used to take pleasure in will be entirely forgotten in favor of crack. The long-term effects of crack consumption on the brain are the main psychological risks for users, but addiction is the mechanism by which long-term consumption occurs.