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Nicotine May Prime Smokers for Cocaine Use, Study Shows

It may seem like common sense that cocaine users are more likely to be smokers than other groups. Drug users tend to use drugs, and what better way to mellow out a crazy cocaine high than a few (packs of) cigarettes?  Well, a new study conducted by Denise and Eric Kandel of Columbia University shows that smoking may lead to cocaine: Nicotine actually causes epigenetic changes that boost a smokers response to cocaine. In other words, if you are or were a smoker, cocaine is going to hit you a lot harder.

The idea of gateway drugs has been around for what seems like forever. I’m sure all my fellow D.A.R.E. kids remember learning that smoking and drinking are just the first step to crack, heroin, baggy black hoodies, getting mugged by drug dealers and all that jazz. For a long time though, a lot of the evidence surrounding that idea has been psychological and circumstantial. Kids who smoke are more likely to try something else because they already jumped off the straight-edge wagon, kids who are buying pot from their dealer are going to get offered some ecstasy at some point, etc. This study, however, roots the issue of gateway drugs in actual, physical responses. People who use nicotine are actually rewired to feel that line of coke more than people who don’t.

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The paper focuses on an experiment preformed on mice, one group of mice was exposed to nicotine and, seven days later, to cocaine. The other group, the control, didn’t get any nicotine, but they still got the blow. The results were that the nicotine mice were 98% more active than the control and 78% more likely to go back to places associate with cocaine. It was a one way correlation too, cocaine didn’t have any impact on nicotine use or cravings. Digging into the neuroscience of the matter, the researchers found out that nicotine affects chromatin, actually changing some details about how certain genes are expressed and opening the doors for cocaine use.

Of course, the experiments were performed on mice, which complicates matters at least as much as it simplifies them. On the one hand, mice are not people. So there’s that. Technically, this study does nothing to prove that nicotine encourages cocaine use in humans although it strongly suggests it. On the other hand, mice are not people, so you can sort of rule out the “well, a smoker just has that kind of rebellious I-don’t-care-about-my-health-lets-go-do-a-whole-bunch-of-drugs mentality” reasoning. You can’t really fit mice into those kinds of social stereotypes.

On top of the whole mice thing, however, the study went back to some data about 1,160 high school students and found that, yes, the data matched up. It’s hard to really nail down cause and effect in situations like these, but this study is definitely pushing towards a relatively convincing point. The next step for the researchers is to look and see if there are similar epigenetic effects on people (and mice) who smoke marijuana and drink alcohol. If there is, it could completely reinvent the idea of what “gateway drugs” really are and completely tear down “It’s all social and psychological and that doesn’t really apply to me” defenses. It’ll be interesting to see where things go.

So remember kids, don’t smoke and don’t do cocaine. But if you’re already resigned to living a depressing, roller-coaster life that revolves solely around  Tony Montana-esque cocaine use, a background in smoking makes a nice side-dish.

(via Nature)

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