According to new research, cocaine could cause the brain to eat itself.

A study on mice has revealed the class A drug can trigger out of control "autography", a process which causes cells to digest themselves.

Without the drug, the process occurs as a vital "clean up service" in which enzymes rid the body of unwanted matter.

But the research, conducted by John Hopkins University in the USA, found the process killed the mice used in the study when they were given high doses of cocaine.

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Dr Prasun Guha, who led the study said: "A cell is like a household that is constantly generating trash.

"Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash - it's usually a good thing."

But the effect of cocaine meant vital components such as mitochondria, which produce energy for the cell, were also disposed of.

The study also found evidence of autophagy present in the brain cells of mice whose mothers had been given the drug while pregnant.

Following the findings, an experimental drug was used which effectively protected mouse nerve cells from a cocaine induced death.

The drug, known as CGP3466B, has been through clinical trials to treat Parkinson's and motor neurone disease.

However, far more research is required to ascertain whether or not the drug could also counteract the harmful effects of cocaine abuse in people, say the researchers.

- nzherald.co.nz