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Caffeine: The Next Gateway Drug By: Emely hilario

Midterms week is approaching and stress is on the rise. It’s a bright Sunday afternoon and while everyone is enjoying the weather Sarah and Anna have to study for their exams. On their way to the library, Sarah stops by the café to get her regular everyday dose of caffeine; a medium iced coffee. Anna waits for her outside, as even the smell of coffee makes her nauseous; she’s never been a fan of caffeine especially coffee. A few weeks later, Sarah receives her exam grades, smiles and thinks to herself “What would I do without coffee?”

Ten years later, Sarah and Anna take a night off work and attend a party where they both try cocaine for the first time. Eventually, cocaine use becomes a frequent activity for them and a way to relieve stress from work. After just a few doses of cocaine, Sarah begins experiencing hallucinations and paranoia. With continued use these symptoms get worse while Anna doesn’t seem to display any. Anna remembered reading an article where research suggests that chronic caffeine consumption in adolescence can increase sensitivity to cocaine in adulthood.

How is this possible?

Generally, cocaine intake increases dopamine levels in the brain after consumption.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation, expectation of reward and stress, amongst other functions.

Chemical structure of dopamine

O’Neil’s study found that chronic caffeine consumption in adolescence enhances the effects of cocaine in adulthood; specifically, it enhances the increase of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens.

The nucleus accumbens is a brain structure that largely plays a role in the reward circuit and is part of the dopaminergic pathway. A possible explanation for these results suggest that chronic caffeine exposure in adolescence alters brain chemistry in adulthood, specifically in the nucleus accumbens.

Coronal slice of brain

Moreover, adolescence is a critical period in which the brain is still developing and vulnerable to stimulants/drugs such as caffeine that can alter its structure and function; however, the adult brain is fully developed and less vulnerable to caffeine making it harder for caffeine or any drugs to have the same effect.

Brain development from adolescence into adulthood with continued use of drugs.

Unlike Anna, Sarah was a chronic caffeine consumer in adolescence which could explain why she had experienced a greater response to cocaine after continued use. Her caffeine intake may have caused a change in her brain that increased her sensitivity to cocaine as an adult causing her symptoms.

Similarly, there are many teenagers who chronically consume caffeine without knowing the possible long term effects it can have on their health. In fact, caffeine consumption in young adults has increased in recent years through soda, coffee and energy drinks.

The lower right hand picture shows the reward circuit and the different parts of the brain involved.

Just like caffeine can enhance the effects of cocaine, it can potentially do so for other drugs as well leading to addiction and a greater public health concern worldwide. The reward circuits of different drugs are all intertwined making it easier for one drug to increase the effects of another.

Caffeine could potentially be a gateway drug to cocaine/other drugs and its consumers wouldn’t know. In the meantime, don’t make that second trip to Starbucks!

Credits:

Created with images by Nathan Dumlao - "untitled image" • Engin_Akyurt - "computer laptop notebook" • Sarthak Navjivan - "untitled image" • Michael Discenza - "untitled image" • Betsssssy - "11/365: Shower Paranoia" • ampiistola - "Paranoia : you must breath out .. so i can breath you in" • Eliott Reyna - "untitled image" • Ravi Sharma - "untitled image" • Kawin Harasai - "untitled image"

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