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New Study Says Cocaine ‘Makes the Brain Eat Itself’

But, like: does it? Actually?

I mean, quick legal note: that is not cocaine, in the photo, obviously. That is Paul Hollywood throwing some flour around. Image via BBC

A new study has found that high doses of the brain drug cocaine—known colloquially and on the streets as "gak" or "chang-a-lang"—can "make your brain eat itself from the inside out." Which sounds bad. Like, you hear a lot of bad things about gak: great swathes of the rainforest burned down to get you your gram, the stabbings, the extorted workers, the laxatives. But this is probably the worst. It makes your brain eat itself despite not having a mouth on it. Imagine a brain, mad with hunger, consuming itself from the inside out. And then the neurons snap and the electricity zaps down through your nerves and into your mouth and face and makes you talk about yourself even louder and for even longer than ever before.


Anyway let's look at the widely touted headline the media's been using and the actual facts from the study:

High Doses of Cocaine Can Cause the Brain to Eat Itself, Research Suggests A study of mice found that the drug can trigger out-of-control "autophagy," a process by which cells digest themselves.

Press Association, January 18, 2016

Oh so the brain doesn't grow a large, chomping, Little Shop of Horrors—style fanged mouth? Disappointing, to be honest. It's just a cell process.

When it is properly regulated, autophagy provides a valuable cleanup service—getting rid of unwanted debris that is dissolved away by enzymes within cell "pockets."

Dr. Prasun Guha, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US, who led the research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said: "A cell is like a household that is constantly generating trash. Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash—it's usually a good thing. But cocaine makes the housekeeper throw away really important things, like mitochondria, which produce energy for the cell."

Essentially, they found that if you give a load of cocaine (known among the street youths as "toot" or "naughty sherbet") to mice, this out-of-control brain process happens that leads to cell death, but an experimental and human-tested drug called CGP3466B can protect the mice brain cells from the ol' eating themselves to death thing. So, cocaine (referred to by dealers as "Westbrook's breakfast" and "Gazza's folly") is a problem, yes, but scientists have found a potential solution.

So I suppose the headlines should be less "Cocaine Makes Your Brain Eat Itself… and That's Bad!" and more "Cocaine Makes the Cells in Your Brain Do Some Wacky Shit" but that doesn't have quite the same sizzle to it, does it? And then we get into a weird fog of medical study reporting, where it's hard to actually peel the glue from the back of the headline versus the actual truncated content of the study it is attached to, and then both are dismissed, and then we all rail a load of gak (short for "Grade A Ketamine") again, safe in the knowledge that our brains are probably fine.

It's like, everyone knows smoking is bad for their lungs and blood, but they still love honking on a lovely refreshing cigarette every 15 to 25 minutes. Alcohol ruins your stomach and your liver and your sense of self-awareness, but we still gulp it on down like water. And cocaine is extremely bad for your brain cells and also quite unethical, but you still… you still could go for a line right now, couldn't you? Well, that's on you, buddy. Don't say we didn't tell you about the study on brains eating themselves. Because they do, and they tested it on mice.

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