Cocaine is a stimulant drug of abuse known for its ability to trigger physical dependence and addiction in repeated and heavy users. Researchers and addiction specialists are well aware that repeated exposure to the drug also has a widespread impact on the brain areas responsible for logical thinking and emotional processing. In a study published in March 2014 in the journal Addiction Biology, a team of Spanish researchers investigated the impact that cocaine addiction has on a person’s ability to deal with complex moral judgments known as moral dilemmas.
Cocaine addiction begins when the brain’s pleasure center comes to expect the presence of the drug as part of its normal working conditions. In addition to this shift in brain function, addicted people experience symptoms such as recurring urges for more cocaine and establishment of a daily routine that makes cocaine-related actions (including purchasing and intake) top priorities. Doctors can diagnose people affected by cocaine addiction with a condition called stimulant use disorder. This disorder includes all forms of addiction to drugs and medications that seriously speed up the rate of activity in the central nervous system, including cocaine, amphetamine and methamphetamine. It also includes all forms of damaging, non-addicted abuse of these drugs and medications.
Unfortunately, long-term cocaine use leads to changes in many more areas of the brain besides the pleasure center. According to research findings compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people who habitually use the drug gradually experience widening dysfunction in the form of a slowdown in the blood flow needed to support normal brain activity. Areas of the brain that eventually become significantly affected by this slowdown include those responsible for doing such basic things as processing emotions and moods, making judgments and rational decisions, restraining repetitive behaviors and making, storing and recalling memories.
Moral dilemmas are notoriously difficult decision-making situations that require an individual to choose between two critical options, both of which make sense on moral or ethical grounds. While an individual can pursue one choice in such a dilemma, he or she cannot pursue both. This means that he or she must engage in a complex series of emotional and logical judgments in order to decide which possible option to choose. In the aftermath of deciding which option to pursue, he or she must also live with the mental/emotional strain of not choosing a second, morally justifiable course of action.
Impact of Cocaine Addiction
In the study published in Addiction Biology, researchers from nine Spanish institutions used an imaging technology called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine the brain functions of cocaine addicts facing a moral dilemma. For comparison’s sake, they also used the same technology to examine the brain functions of people not affected by drug use when facing the same types of difficult moral choices. Altogether, the study included 10 recently abstinent cocaine addicts and 14 individuals who did not use drugs. In addition to testing brain responses under the active strain of moral dilemmas, the researchers looked at the everyday level of function in the brain areas involved in moral decision-making.
After completing their comparisons, the researchers concluded that, compared to people unaffected by drug use, individuals addicted to cocaine show obvious signs of reduced brain function when faced with the difficulty of making morally complex choices and trade-offs. They also concluded that, compared to people unaffected by drug use, individuals addicted to cocaine have a significantly lower level of baseline function in the brain regions responsible for handling moral choices.
Significance and Considerations
The authors of the study published in Addiction Biology believe that their findings clearly indicate the impact of cocaine addiction on the ability to make difficult moral decisions. They also believe that cocaine-related deficits in moral decision-making dovetail with more widespread deficits in the ability to accurately judge social situations and make appropriate choices in those situations. It’s important to note that the study only included a small number of cocaine addicts and people unaffected by drug-related issues. This fact means that the authors’ findings may or may not apply to the larger population of people dealing with cocaine addiction. Further study will be needed before anyone can fully verify the impact that addiction to the drug has on an individual’s moral decision-making.