16 Apr Are Cocaine Addiction and Nicotine Addiction Related?
Cocaine is an illegal/illicit drug of abuse that belongs to a larger class of substances known as stimulants. Nicotine is a legal recreational substance that produces both stimulating and depressing effects inside the brain and body. Repeated consumption of either cocaine or nicotine can trigger the characteristic changes in brain function that mark the onset of addiction. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, a team of researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University looked at the common origins of cocaine addiction and nicotine addiction. These researchers concluded that both forms of addiction rely partly on access to the same pathway to the brain.
When inhaled through the lungs or otherwise consumed, nicotine passes into the bloodstream and travels rapidly to the brain. In order to gain access to the brain’s interior, the substance relies largely on entry points called nicotine receptors or nicotinic receptors, which are found on the surfaces of certain cells. Once inside the brain, nicotine alters the chemical environment and, among other things, produces an intense form of pleasure called euphoria. However, the substance only triggers its euphoric effects for a limited time (literally seconds for a single cigarette puff). Practically speaking, this means that cigarette/nicotine consumers have a strong incentive to repeatedly expose their brains to more nicotine. Unfortunately, repeated alteration of the brain’s pleasure-producing chemicals can trigger a physical dependence on further nicotine/tobacco intake. Since nicotine has no medical benefits and physically dependent people typically consume the substance in an uncontrolled manner, nicotine dependence essentially equals nicotine addiction. Most regular smokers in the U.S. and other countries have such an addiction and subsequently feel compelled to continue their nicotine intake.
Like nicotine, cocaine passes through the bloodstream to the brain relatively rapidly, regardless of the method used to introduce the drug into the body. However, some forms of cocaine use produce more rapid results than others; as a rule, the quickest results and the shortest “highs” come from inhaling the smoke generated by burning “crack” cocaine. Just like nicotine consumption, cocaine consumption leads to a euphoric effect by increasing the brain’s levels of pleasure-producing chemicals. As with nicotine/tobacco consumption, repeated exposure to the drug can trigger physical dependence and addiction. While nicotine addiction causes most of its harm by exposing the body to cancer, lung disease and other serious physical health risks, cocaine addiction causes problems inside the brain as well as problems inside the body. Still, due in part to the sheer number of nicotine/cigarette users, nicotine addiction-related deaths are far more common than cocaine addiction-related deaths.
Are They Related?
In the study published in Neuropsychopharmacology, the Virginia Commonwealth University researchers used laboratory experiments on mice to explore the common roots of cocaine addiction and nicotine addiction inside the human brain. Specifically, the researchers looked at the role of nicotine receptors, which scientists already know play a critical role in giving nicotine access to the brain. All humans (and all mice) naturally have several types of these receptors, each of which responds only to certain types of chemical signals. During the laboratory experiments, the researchers systematically altered the various types of nicotinic receptors in the brains of the subject mice. With each alteration, they measured the animals’ level of response to nicotine exposure, as well as the animals’ level of response to cocaine exposure.
The researchers concluded that, in addition to providing brain access for the pleasure-producing effects of nicotine, one type of nicotinic receptor also helps provide brain access for the pleasure-producing effects of cocaine. Essentially, cocaine “piggybacks” on the same chemical pathway used by nicotine and uses this pathway to change the brain’s chemical environment.
The study’s authors believe that their findings demonstrate a potential common basis for cocaine addiction and nicotine addiction. While cocaine can reach the brain through other chemical pathways, the route provided by nicotine receptors may play a crucial part in making the drug highly addictive. The authors note that their findings may also help pharmaceutical researchers develop medications for cocaine addiction (a form of addiction that currently has no reliable medication-based treatment options). This is true because a medication that blocks access to the nicotine receptor in question may diminish the drug’s effects enough to significantly improve the success of cocaine recovery.
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