Longitudinal changes in cocaine intake and cognition are linked to cortical thickness adaptations in cocaine users

Neuroimage Clin. 2019;21:101652. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2019.101652. Epub 2019 Jan 4.


Background: Cocaine use has been consistently associated with decreased gray matter volumes in the prefrontal cortex. However, it is unclear if such neuroanatomical abnormalities depict either pre-existing vulnerability markers or drug-induced consequences. Thus, this longitudinal MRI study investigated neuroplasticity and cognitive changes in relation to altered cocaine intake.

Methods: Surface-based morphometry, cocaine hair concentration, and cognitive performance were measured in 29 cocaine users (CU) and 38 matched controls at baseline and follow-up. Based on changes in hair cocaine concentration, CU were classified either as Decreasers (n = 15) or Sustained Users (n = 14). Surface-based morphometry measures did not include regional tissue volumes.

Results: At baseline, CU displayed reduced cortical thickness (CT) in lateral frontal regions, and smaller cortical surface area (CSA) in the anterior cingulate cortex, compared to controls. In Decreasers, CT of the lateral frontal cortex increased whereas CT within the same regions tended to further decrease in Sustained Users. In contrast, no changes were found for CSA and subcortical structures. Changes in CT were linked to cognitive performance changes and amount of cocaine consumed over the study period.

Conclusions: These results suggest that frontal abnormalities in CU are partially drug-induced and can recover with decreased substance use. Moreover, recovery of frontal CT is accompanied by improved cognitive performance confirming that cognitive decline associated with cocaine use is potentially reversible.

Keywords: Cocaine-related disorders; Cognition; Endophenotype; Prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / drug effects
  • Cocaine / administration & dosage
  • Cocaine / adverse effects*
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / pathology*
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / complications
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / psychology
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / drug effects
  • Frontal Lobe / pathology*
  • Gray Matter / drug effects
  • Gray Matter / pathology
  • Gyrus Cinguli / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / drug effects
  • Prefrontal Cortex / drug effects
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology


  • Cocaine