Cocaine and Memory Loss (Links)

Cocaine use is a critical health issue due to its high addiction potential and harmful consequences. Cocaine has various effects on the physical and mental health of users, but the relationship between cocaine and memory loss is particularly significant.

Numerous studies have shown that cocaine inflicts damage on areas of the brain essential for many cognitive functions. Compared to non-users, cocaine-users often demonstrate poor memory, attention, and decision-making skills. 

However, some research has also shown that brain functions tend to improve after long-term abstinence. Quitting cocaine use and continuing to abstain can be extremely difficult. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with cocaine abuse, help is out there, and we can guide you toward it. Call 480-378-0660 to discuss addiction treatment in your area and begin your journey to an addiction-free life today. 


Long-term cocaine abuse can affect several brain functions, including memory. The harm can be lasting, but with proper treatment, may be reversible.

  • How Cocaine Affects Memory
  • Cocaine Ages Your Brain
  • Is the Damage Permanent?
  • Further Effects on the Brain
  • Reversing the Damage

How Cocaine Affects Memory

Research on both animals and humans consistently demonstrates a strong relationship between the decline of cognitive functions and cocaine use. These studies suggest that regular use of the drug can affect several areas of cognitive functioning. Most significantly, short-term (or “working”) memory.

Long-term cocaine users show they lose the ability to remember even simple items.  

What the Research Says 

One study that demonstrated this compared the working memory of cocaine users and people who had never used cocaine. All participants had to memorize a list of letters, then indicate when presented with a letter that wasn’t on the list. MRI scans analyzed the participants’ brain activity while they completed the task.

Again, the cocaine users were much less accurate in their responses than the non-users. Their brain scans also demonstrated decreased activity in the areas responsible for memory and decision-making. 

Research conducted on monkeys has also examined the memory-impairing effects of cocaine. Ultimately, it further confirms the direct relationship between cocaine use and weakened brain function.

In this study, a group of monkeys learned to self-administer cocaine based on a reward system. After just one week of regular use, researchers found the cognitive skills of the monkeys had weakened compared to a group of healthy monkeys.  

Several monkeys in the cocaine-using group were unable to choose correct answers during a simple cognitive task. Additionally, the cocaine group had a harder time adapting to changes in the rules of the task. The results suggest that cocaine creates difficulties maintaining focus and attention.

Although this research did not involve humans, it still strengthens the existing research which suggests a direct link between cocaine and memory loss. Importantly, the monkeys were free of many additional outside influences that might lead a person to addiction. 

Cocaine Ages Your Brain

Prolonged cocaine use mainly affects areas of the brain involved in memory and decision making. But how exactly does it achieve that? What do MRI scans tell us about the long-term effects of cocaine on the brain? 

For one, prolonged cocaine use may speed up the brain’s aging process, which can significantly affect memory. Cocaine abuse is typically thought of as a young people’s problem, but it can have serious effects on older adults too. Studies show that people who abuse cocaine in their 30s and 40s display brain changes more commonly associated with people over 60. These changes also mean increased memory loss and decreased attention and reaction time.  

This aging may be sped up due to accelerated shrinking of the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is involved in many important functions, including memory. Cocaine users and the elderly alike have issues with tasks requiring working memory and attention. These similarities are what led researchers to suggest that cocaine possibly ages the brain. 

Evidence shows that the brains of cocaine users experience shrinkage at a rate nearly twice that of non-users. Some brain shrinkage ordinarily occurs as people grow older. But if a younger person’s brain ages too quickly, it can cause additional problems when they reach an advanced age. When older adults abuse cocaine, it speeds up the changes already being made to their brains and amplifies negative effects.  

Is the Damage Permanent?

While cocaine abuse can severely affect a person’s memory, it may be possible to regain cognitive functions if use is stopped for a significant amount of time.

However, research also suggests that the earlier in life a person starts using cocaine and the longer use persists, the harder it may be to regain cognitive functions later on. 

One study examined the mental issues in different phases of abstinence from cocaine. Researchers wanted to determine if shortterm abstinence had any impact on the cognitive changes caused by cocaine use.

They looked at the cognitive performance of people with cocaine dependence during early abstinence and after four weeks, and compared them with healthy individuals. The cocaine dependent group displayed more cognitive weaknesses than the non-dependent group in areas like attention, verbal memory, and learning. Poor cognitive functioning remained even after four weeks of abstinence. 

However, another study, conducted over a longer period of time, resulted in a different outcome.

This study examined the relationship between cocaine and memory loss over the course of a full year. It determined if changing the amount of cocaine intake had any effect on brain function. The participants who increased their cocaine use within the year showed reduced cognitive ability, particularly working memory.

Those who had decreased their use did show slight improvement, but those who had completely stopped use almost fully recovered normal cognitive functions.  

Participants who had stopped using were on a similar cognitive level with people who had never used cocaine. Recovery of memory abilities also appeared related to the age that participants had started their cocaine use. Those who had started using cocaine earlier in life had less success regaining full cognitive function.  

Sobriety is Key 

The results of this study might seem intimidating. It may take a long time recover memory and other abilities, but it is possible.

With treatment and continued sobriety, brain health can be restored. Waiting for improvement can certainly be discouraging, though, which is why getting proper addiction treatment is so vital to recovery. Those in addiction recovery often have more success staying abstinent when they have support along the way.   

Further Effects on the Brain

Impairments to memory may be caused by a variety of changes made to the brain.

Along with increasing aging and lowering brain volume, cocaine can also damage the brain’s dopamine system. Cocaine reacts with dopamine receptors to inhibit brain cells from reusing any unused dopamine. The  build-up of dopamine is what causes the “high,” because dopamine stimulates the reward centers of the brain. When the brain’s reward system gets used to this excess of dopamine, it loses the ability to function normally.  

This is significant because regions of the brain involved in higher thinking and decision-making contain high levels of dopamine receptors. These effects of cocaine on the brain may help explain why cocaine users continue to use the drug or return to it after a period of abstinence despite the negative consequences. Ultimately, the over-stimulation of the reward centers reinforces drug-taking habits.  

Such research further demonstrates the benefit of behavioral therapies during addiction recovery. Successful recovery involves much more than stopping drug use. Those in recovery must also work on changing their behavior going forward or it might be easier to relapse into old habits associated with drug use. 

Reversing the Damage

Ample research has explored cocaine’s effects on the brain. The results have consistently shown a strong link between cocaine and memory loss.

Cocaine makes significant changes to the brain which can include sped-up aging, shrinkage of certain parts of the brain, and malfunction of the brain’s dopamine system. Even short-term use can have lasting effects.

Although these results may seem discouraging, research has also shown that damage to the brain can generally be repaired with long-term abstinence.  

When your brain’s reward system has adapted to habitual cocaine use, abstinence can be easier said than done. Recovery is not always simply a matter of willpower. This is why proper treatment tends to be so much more successful than quitting on your own.

Addiction treatment involves educational resources and behavioral therapy, which help you understand the changes in your brain and give you strategies to reverse them. Treatment may also include participating in support groups, which can provide you with encouragement to keep going when you face challenges. Whatever your needs, there are treatment options for you. 

Beginning recovery can often be the hardest part. It may be difficult or uncomfortable to reach out for help, but there is no shame in needing assistance. Many people struggle without it.

That is why we are here to ease the recovery process for you. There is support out there for everyone, and we are committed to helping you find the option that suits you. If you are ready to take the first steps toward recovery and regain your mental health, call us today. 

Written by Alina Gonzalez

To speak with someone about your situation and get a free consultation, call Addiction Care Treatment Program at 480-378-0660 today!

Addiction Care Treatment Program – Call 480-378-0660 to Find Help Immediately!