Neurological complications from cocaine use are well recognized. We propose that chronic cocaine use can also cause clinically silent brain dysfunction. We investigated brain glucose metabolism with positron emission tomography (PET) and 2-deoxy-2[18F] fluoro-D-glucose (FDG) in 21 neurologically intact chronic cocaine abusers (C) and 18 normal controls (N). The cocaine abusers were tested 1-6 weeks after the last use of cocaine and seven were retested after a 3 month drug-free period. Global cerebral glucose metabolism was not significantly different between controls and cocaine abusers (N = 38.4 +/- 3, C = 36.5 +/- 5 mumol/100 g of tissue, min). However, cocaine abusers had significantly (P less than 0.05) lower metabolic activity in 16 of the 21 left frontal regions and 8 of the 21 right frontal regions. These decreases persisted after 3-4 months of detoxification and were correlated with the dose (P less than or equal to 0.01) and the years of cocaine use (P less than or equal to 0.05). This study shows reduced rates of frontal metabolism in neurologically intact cocaine abusers that persist even after 3-4 months of detoxification.