What goes up must come down — and the higher you go, the harder you fall.
These axioms were at the heart of a study at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory that looked at the cocaine high and the cocaine crash to understand how one follows the other. Understanding this can provide insight into the physiological effects of drug abuse.
The dopamine pathway, or pleasure pathway, which reinforces cocaine use has been at the center of most research in this area. But researchers involved in this study looked instead at motivations associated with seeking to use the drug initially. In other words, they weren’t examining the power of pleasure but the drive for pleasure or avoidance of pain as a way to understand substance abuse; i.e., is avoidance of a drug crash part of what motivates or de-motivates use of cocaine?
When Cocaine Use Is and Isn’t Appealing
Professor Aaron Ettenberg and lead study author Dr. Jennifer Wenzel report that their study shows that it isn’t pleasure-seeking alone thath leads a person (or rat) to use drugs, but rather the cumulative assessment of both positive and negative outcomes. When pros and cons are weighed out with a net positive result, then drug use is appealing.
Researchers monitored norepinephrine in two distinct brain areas associated with anxiety and emotional processing (the BNST and the nucleus of the amygdala) in laboratory rats. The study looked back to previous research performed with rats at UCSB.
In the former study, rats ran down a steep embankment in order to receive a cocaine injection. At first, the rats ran faster toward the injection indicating that there was positive motivation via the cocaine high. However, after several days the rats showed reticence, going more slowly and even retreating. The researchers believed this indicated the rats’ new association of the injection with the eventual cocaine crash that followed. The rats were seeking to avoid the crash by avoiding the injection.
The more recent study used drugs that interfered with norepinephrine in the same brain regions. When those areas where negative consequences are evaluated were impaired, the retreat behaviors also subsided. When only positive consequences are in view, cocaine use is pursued. When the negative results (the crash) are weighed, cocaine use is less appealing.
Critics of the study say that the study didn’t effectively model addiction since the rats received only one cocaine injection per day. True addiction, they say, involves multiple daily injections. And while it is true that the cocaine crash is demotivating, what actually tends to happen with addicted humans is that they compensate for the crash by upping their dose. Of course, the higher the high, the steeper the crash, but this, critics say, is a more accurate depiction of an addiction spiral.