Over 5,000 Americans will die from cocaine overdoses this year, according to the NIH — a 42 percent increase since 2001.

Addiction to the drug has plagued many of our brightest minds, from John Belushi to Thomas Edison. However, its effects on the brain are still not completely understood. A new study this week may shine some light on how this devastating substance destroys healthy brain cells.

It starts with a process called autophagia (fans of Greek will immediately note that this means "eating oneself"). Autophagia is a vital process in which the cell cleans out its own guts, essentially "eating" and destroying waste it has built up while doing its job. However, like all bodily activities, the process is a delicate one, and when autophagia goes awry or becomes overzealous, the cell suffers.

According to new research, it appears that cocaine causes brain cells to overdo it on the autophagia, digesting vital parts of the cell, like mitochondria. Mitochondria produce energy for cells to survive, so once they are destroyed, the cell starves. It's a bit like eating your own stomach.

It's important to know how cocaine causes brain cell death so that medicines might be developed to combat these effects, potentially saving the lives of those who have suffered an accidental overdose or who are attempting to quell their own addiction. By pinpointing the cause of the problem, researchers were able to develop and target a potential antidote, and indeed one compound, called CGP3466B, was found to slow the cells' autophagia, protecting nerve cells in mouse brains from cell death.

Compound CGP3466B is already known to be safe in humans, as it was used in clinical trials as an experimental drug for Parkinson's disease and ALS (the drug failed to treat either disease). The researchers warn that it will take many years to hone in on the perfect treatment for cocaine-induced brain damage, but this development provides a new and exciting pathway.

However, as with all animal studies, no definite conclusions can be reached until the drug is tested in humans.

The study was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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