Cocaine has one of the best-known stories in drug history, from a period as an immensely popular health solution (including as a proposed cure for morphine addiction, ironically enough) to infamy, illegal status, and a reputation as a high-end party drug. But even within that narrative, there are chapters you may not know about, from the neurochemistry of what causes cocaine highs and addiction to the very strange period where it was endorsed by the Pope.
Nowadays, nose candy is seen by some as vaguely cheesy and Wolf Of Wall Street, and is gradually falling in popularity; the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that two million people used it every year in the early 2000s, but that usage of cocaine had fallen to about 1.5 million by 2013. Its glory days may be over, but it's still one of the most interesting illegal drugs around, both for its history and for its fascinating impacts on the brain.
Here are seven entertaining, bizarre, and frightening things to know about cocaine.
1. It's Been Part Of Human History For A Very Long Time
Cocaine, in its modern form, is extracted from the leaves of the coca plant, Erythroxylum coca, and chewing coca leaves has apparently been part of certain South American cultures for centuries, particularly around the Andes. It had a sacred reputation, and the traditional method of chewing it, called acullico, involves chewing a large ball of it combined with an alkaline for long periods, producing a mild stimulant effect, improved endurance, and local pain relief. But it may be even older than that: Dr. Raymond Goldberg mentions that there's a possibility it may be evident in Egyptian mummies from 3000 years ago, and that its first discovery among Andean people was a gravesite from around 500 AD, where the deceased had been buried, helpfully, with a supply of coca leaves.
Coca itself made its way to the Old World when Europeans sent back reports about the "miraculous" effects of this newly discovered leaf from South America to their friends. Salon's collected a hilarious selection of letters from the 1500s and 1600s by flabbergasted Europeans, including a priest who documented with astonishment that it helped take away tooth pain after an (anesthetic free) tooth extraction.
2. A Cocaine Wine Was Once Endorsed By The Pope
We all know that a cocaine solution was originally part of Coca-Cola, and that it was recommended as a pain medication for basically everybody in the late 19th century, but it also had a slightly more peculiar chapter in its history: it became part of one of the most celebrated wines of the 1800s. The wine in question was called Vin Mariani, and was developed in 1863 by the French chemist Alberto Mariani from a combination of Bordeaux and coca leaves.
Vin Mariani was an immediate hit, and had some spectacularly famous fans: Queen Victoria was reportedly fond of it, Auguste Rodin and the King of Spain wrote testimonials, and both Thomas Edison and Ulysses S. Grant professed their adoration for the drink. But the real endorsement came from the Vatican. Pope Leo XIII gave Mariani a medal for the wine and appeared in advertisements for it. Vin Mariani was one of the inspirations for the original Coca-Cola, but the French definitely got there first.
3. The Discoverer Of Powder Cocaine Also Invented Mustard Gas
Cocaine as we know it wasn't created until 1860, when Albert Niemann, a German PhD student in chemistry, managed to extract the primary alkaloid from coca leaves as part of his doctorate. We've got him to thank for the "cocaine" name, and for the first recorded experience of the drug in its pure form: he apparently put it on his tongue and reported a very quick local numbness.
Young Niemann, unfortunately, contributed to the woes of the 20th century in another way beyond his drug: he also refined mustard gas, which was used as a biochemical weapon in World War I and caused gigantic amounts of suffering, and his death in 1861 was likely caused by his experiments with it. It was left to other chemists to find the chemical formula for cocaine and promote it as an anesthetic. The 20th century was henceforth touched by cocaine in many parts of its history, even with the beginnings of psychoanalysis; Sigmund Freud himself was very enthusiastic about cocaine, and began testing its effects on himself and his friends in 1884.
4. It Floods The Brain With Dopamine
The pleasure behind a cocaine hit is due to the neurochemical reactions it produces in the brain. Many aspects of mood and function in the brain are affected by the interactions between chemical compounds and their "receptors": the chemicals are released into the brain, produce an effect, and then are absorbed or taken out of circulation by bonding to their particular receptors. Cocaine blocks the reabsorption of a particular chemical, dopamine, which is responsible for pleasure and euphoria via brain cell activation, by stopping the receptors from working properly.
The result is a "buildup" in which dopamine levels flood the brain and a cocaine user gets a tremendous, very happy high. It's exactly the same mechanism behind antidepressant SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, except that the receptors being blocked by SSRIs are the serotonin ones, resulting in a serotonin flood that helps regulate and boost mood. (Cocaine blocks those as well.)
5. Its Impact On The Brain Is Similar To The First Stages Of Love
In a seriously interesting TED talk that's now become famous, anthropologist Helen Fisher compared the neurochemistry of cocaine addiction to the brain MRIs of people in the first fresh stages of love, and found some very intriguing similarities. The brains of people in love were quite literally high in the same way that cocaine addicts were: they were flooded with dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, creating an intense sensation of pleasure and a wish to make it continue or to feed the "high". The real site of action for both these activities is the ventral tegmental area, the reward center of the brain, and it's led to new understandings about why first love feels so addictive: it really is.
6. It May Become Addictive By Changing The Brain's Motivations
How does cocaine actually become addictive? According to neurobiology, it's an interaction between that intense burst of pleasure in the brain and interference with the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that influences motivation and decision-making. The Psychiatric Times reported in 2007 that cocaine seems to "dysregulate" the prefrontal cortex in some way, and Nature's overview of studies about the prefrontal cortex and cocaine in 2011 found that the structure of that brain area differs radically in cocaine addicts and non-drug users. The prefrontal cortex plays a big role in what's called our "executive functions," our decision-making, and weighing of choices. Cocaine seems to disrupt that area physically, and make us pursue cocaine like it's a job.
Part of it might also be memory, which the prefrontal cortex participates in as well. Memories of drug pleasure can be incredibly powerful, and motivate addicts to seek out another hit. But, interestingly, knowing about the prefrontal cortex's role may actually help with giving cocaine addicts the right therapy. Studies are finding that interfering with the prefrontal cortexes in the brains of addicts using special cells and light may actually solve their addiction woes, though testing that approach on humans is a long way off.
7. Cocaine Addicts Are Creatures Of Habit
New research published this month in Science has found that cocaine addicts find it deeply hard to change their behavior to kick the habit — or to change their behavior at all. It turns out that cocaine addiction creates a kind of inability for the brain to alter its habits, even if the person learns and consciously knows that a particular path is a bad idea.
The scientists let both cocaine addicts and non-users choose from a variety of animal pictures several times, and gradually shifted the experiment so that certain pictures that had once been safe now incurred an electric shock. They found that, even though the cocaine users knew that their old selections were no longer "safe," they just kept picking them. They couldn't get out of their pattern. It seems that this impact on other habits may be particularly strong with cocaine, but we're still understanding why.
Editor's Note: If you think you may have a problem with cocaine, the first step, besides informing any people whose support you'll need, is to go to an understanding doctor or specialist who may be able to recommend therapy, rehab, or other steps that might be able to help.