Scientists can now see what cocaine does to your brain’s blood flow

BY Anna Christiansen  August 29, 2014 at 12:39 PM EST
The image on the left shows the mouse brain blood vessels before cocaine. The image on the right shows the blood vessels after, revealing that many of the vessels are now darker, which signifies lower blood flow. Photo from Biomedical Optics Express.

The image on the left shows the mouse brain blood vessels before cocaine. The image on the right shows the blood vessels after, revealing that many of the vessels are now darker, which signifies lower blood flow. Photo from Biomedical Optics Express.

Researchers unveiled a breakthrough imaging technique Thursday that show what blood flow in the brain looks like on cocaine.

For the first time, researchers have been able to prove “cocaine induced microischemia,” a precursor to stroke that arises when blood flow shuts down. The experiment was conducted on mice via cocaine injections. The results were published in the journal Biomedical Optics Express.

The method means that we can finally see tiny vessels called capillaries, which form the brain’s circulation network.

The new technique grew out of optical coherence Doppler tomography, or ODT, which previously revolutionized imaging for the eyes. Originating in the early 1990s, ODT works by hitting moving blood cells with lasers and then measuring the frequency of the light that bounces back. It essentially quantifies blood flow through recording speed and volume.

The methodology was developed by biomedical Engineers at Stony Brook University and the National Institutes of Health. According to co-author of the report Yingtian Pan, ODT now incorporates “a new processing method called phase summation” that makes the equipment able to detect very low blood speeds and visualize capillaries.

We know that cocaine can cause “aneurysm-like bleeding and strokes,” but the exact mechanism that leads to this is still fuzzy because of the current imaging tools available. The new technology has the potential to better understand how drug abuse affects the brain and help with treatment options for addicts.