Researchers linked cocaine use to excessive iron buildup that could cause cell death, similar to the way cells in the brain die from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, a study released Tuesday found.

Published in the Translational Psychiatry journal, the study analyzed the brains of people who had been addicted to the illicit substance and compared them to the brains of healthy people. The researchers found those who had used cocaine regularly had a much greater accumulation of iron, specifically in the globus pallidus area of the brain.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry examined the brain tissue of 44 healthy brains and 44 brains of people who were addicted to cocaine and found the higher concentration of iron in the brain was directly linked to cocaine use. While cocaine users’ brains had excessive iron build up, the rest of the human body of drug abusers was found to have an iron deficiency, leading researchers to believe the overall iron flow is disrupted by cocaine use.

Dr. Karen Ersche, who worked on the study, said in a statement the excessive iron buildup in the brain caused by cocaine use appeared to be just the same as the brain tissue of people who were suffering from neurodegeneration, which can lead to debilitating diseases associated with deteriorating cognitive function like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“Iron is used to produce red blood cells, which help store and carry oxygen in the blood. So, iron deficiency in the blood means that organs and tissues may not get as much oxygen as they need. On the other hand, we know that excessive iron in the brain is associated with cell death, which is what we frequently see in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease,” she said.

Despite the similarities, researchers weren’t able to determine if cocaine addiction could actually lead to an increased risk of Alzheimer's or Parkinson’s because they said the increased iron in a cocaine user’s brain was a result of reduced absorption of iron from food stimulated by cocaine’s effect on metabolism, whereas increased iron in instances of Alzheimer’s has been linked to changing environmental factors and consumption of foods heavy in iron.

Although cocaine use in the U.S. has decreased in recent years, about 1.5 million people 12 and older were estimated to have experimented with the drug in 2014, according to a 2015 National Institute on Drug Abuse report.