Are you addicted to caffeine? Do you wake up and think about coffee, and can’t be productive without that fourth cup? Surprisingly, what you may think of as a coffee addiction is not actually addiction. However, there are still negative consequences to your excessive consumption, just not in the ways you might think. Your dependence on more and more coffee is due to an increased tolerance. Meaning, after a while, you have to drink more caffeine to feel the same magnitude of effects you did as the first time you consumed it. Your increased coffee tolerance leads to excessive wanting and craving of caffeine, otherwise known as incentive sensitization. This increases your susceptibility and sensitization to cocaine and other highly addictive drugs.
Today, there are many cues and triggers for caffeine. People can’t walk past a Starbucks without craving a coffee, or can’t eat breakfast without a freshly brewed cup. This incentive sensitization leads to changes in the reward pathway in the brain. This reward pathway is shared with many other highly addictive drugs. So, there is cross-sensitization because these caffeine-induced changes affect your body’s reaction to cocaine. A person who experiences this pathway change and does cocaine (even if it is their first time) will experience increased locomotor effects to the drug. They will also have increased wanting for more drug because they feel the effects to a higher degree.
To prove this, a study was done on rats to show how excessive caffeine can cause sensitization to cocaine. Rats who consumed caffeine during adolescence developed locomotor sensitization to cocaine later in life. This cross-sensitization from caffeine to cocaine occurs because the two reward pathways are shared. So, the changes in the pathway due to the excessive caffeine craving and consumption creates the locomotor sensitization to cocaine. That’s why someone who does cocaine for the first time still experiences these enhanced locomotor effects to the drug. This cross-sensitization is a risk factor for the development of an addiction to cocaine and other addictive drugs.
You may be wondering, why can you be addicted to cocaine and not coffee when both are craved and being taken repeatedly? Repeated and increased cocaine use can potentially lead to addiction because there is compulsive seeking and use of cocaine even though it has harmful physiological and psychological consequences. Caffeine does not have harmful effects on the body that cause repeated use, which is a requirement for addiction. Be careful, because even though your coffee dependence isn’t an addiction, you risk becoming highly susceptible to cocaine which can put you on the path towards drug addiction.