New Study Shows Alcohol could be a “Gateway Drug” for Cocaine

by Chris Clancy

November 6, 2017

alcohol and cocaine

The term “gateway drug” may have fallen out of fashion in recent years, as there did not seem to be much data to back up the idea that use of one substance led to the use of other, more dangerous substances.

That could change. A new study out of Columbia University offers hard evidence that regular alcohol use tends to increase the likelihood of addiction to cocaine, once introduced. This occurs because of alcohols tendency to ease certain pathways in the brain’s reward centers, creating a more permissive environment for cocaine addiction.

Getting Rats Addicted

In experiments led by Dr. Edmund Griffin, a group of rats was given alcohol for two hours each day for 11 days, while another group was given water during the same period. Then, for the next 32 days, both groups of rats were given cocaine, with growing obstacles to the drug during that 32-day period.

The alcohol-primed rats wound up pressing their cocaine lever 563 times, on average, compared to just 310 times by the rats not primed with alcohol. Once the 30-plus-day cocaine binge stopped, the alcohol-primed rats pressed the cocaine lever an average of 58 times, compared to just 18 times by the water-fed rats.

The study also showed that the alcohol-primed rats were willing to go through more for another hit. Among them, more than half were willing to endure severe electrical shocks before giving up on the lever, and 29 percent continued to press the lever despite receiving the strongest shocks that could be administered. Meanwhile, just 14 percent of the water-fed rats bothered with the cocaine lever after being introduced to the shocks.

The Gateway Hypothesis

While rats might not make particularly good models for human behavior, the similarity between rats’ and humans’ brain activity at the molecular level, when it comes to neurons, is striking.

It’s for that reason that the researchers are using the study’s results to suggest there exists a common “gateway” path between alcohol and cocaine. It should be noted that Dr. Harris worked with Drs. Eric and Denise Kandel, pioneers in the study of the developmental phases of drug use in adolescents, whose work provided the basis for what is known in scientific circles as the “Gateway Hypothesis.”

The results, the researchers say, effectively shows alcohol’s corrosive effect on the brain’s histone deacetylases (HDAC4), the protein that acts as a check on the brain’s reward circuitry.

While more research is needed, the study could be a big win in identifying ways in which alcohol, the classic “gateway drug,” eases the transition to more addictive behaviors. If this is the case, many drug intervention and drug prevention programs could be adjusting their approach, particularly as they relate to adolescents.

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