New research from the University of Zurich in Switzerland suggests that people who regularly use cocaine struggle to feel empathy for others and are less likely to enjoy social interactions, compared with individuals who do not use the drug.

The research team says their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that treatment for cocaine addicts should include social skill training.

Cocaine is an addictive illegal stimulant that is extracted from the leaves of Erythroxylon coca – a coca plant native to South America.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimated that there were around 1.9 million current (past-month) cocaine users in the US in 2008.

Users of the drug can experience short-term energy boosts, euphoria and talkativeness. But cocaine can produce some serious health issues, including brain damage and an increased heart rate and blood pressure, which can cause heart attack and stroke.

Previous studies have also found that regular cocaine users demonstrate poor memory, lack of concentration and have attention deficits.

But for this most recent study, the team wanted to see whether regular cocaine use may also impact a person’s social skills.

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A new study suggests that regular cocaine users do not see social interaction as rewarding, therefore they tend to avoid it. Researchers say this could fuel their addiction further.

The investigators conducted a series of experiments on two groups. One group was made up of chronic cocaine users, while the other consisted of healthy controls.

From the experiments, the researchers found that compared with the healthy controls, cocaine users:

  • Found it difficult to understand the mental perspective of others
  • Demonstrated less emotional empathy
  • Found it hard to detect emotions from the voices of others
  • Reported fewer social interactions
  • Demonstrated less engagement during social interactions.

The investigators believe that regular cocaine users avoid social interaction because they perceive it as being less rewarding, compared with healthy controls.

An experiment that measured participants’ brain activity during social interaction revealed that cocaine users show less activation in the medial orbitofrontal cortex – a part of the brain that plays an important part in the reward system.

The investigators note that weaker activity in this area of the brain was also linked to fewer social contacts in the weeks prior to the experiment.

“Cocaine users perceive social exchange as less positive and rewarding compared to people who do not use this stimulant,” explains Boris Quednow, head of the division of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacopsychology at the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Zurich.

The research team says this brain activity may help explain why social issues, such as loss of friends, family or employment, often do not persuade individuals who are cocaine dependent to overcome the addiction.

Additionally, they note that the fact cocaine users perceive social interaction as less rewarding may also explain why many of them lose supportive social contacts – an event that may further fuel their addiction.

Based on their findings, the researchers suggest that when undergoing treatment for cocaine addiction, individuals should be taught how to better interact with others.

They add:

Social skills, such as empathy, mental perspective taking, and prosocial behavior, should be trained during the treatment of cocaine dependence to enhance the efficacy and sustainability of the treatment.”

Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that cocaine triggers rapid growth in new brain structures that may encourage drug-seeking behavior.