Alcohol is deemed a safe and common drug compared to Cocaine – so how could these two be connected? Over the years, we have heard the theory that marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to the use of harder drugs. The idea has been that once someone uses pot, they will be substantially more likely to try more dangerous substances like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines. This is based on the rationale that someone who has access to marijuana on the black market will have greater access to other drugs and will likely be offered those drugs by dope dealers and become willing to experiment with them.
What we haven’t heard much about is that alcohol might actually be a gateway drug. This is largely because most people do not consider alcohol a drug, even though it is. Nevertheless, a new study published in Science Advances in October of 2017 showed that rats that had consumed large amounts of alcohol were more likely to abuse cocaine, potentially proving that alcohol use can lead to cocaine addiction. Could this mean we have a new definition of what a gateway drug really is? Quite possibly.
In the past, there hasn’t been a clear understanding of how the gateway drug theory plays itself out. Led by led by psychiatrist Edmund Griffin Jr., M.D., Ph.D., Columbia University Medical Center scientists hoped to come to a scientific conclusion about the gateway drug hypothesis.
Study On Rats Shows That Alcohol “Primes” The Brain For Cocaine Addiction
Griffin and his team created a simple experiment using rats, alcohol, and cocaine. Some of the rats were given ten percent alcohol for the ten days prior to the cocaine phase of the experiment, while the other rats did not consume alcohol. Then, all the rats were given the ability to push a button that would allow them to access as much cocaine as they wanted.
The rats who had used alcohol quickly began to show the usual signs of addiction – obsessive and compulsive drug use, even in the face of adverse consequences. They used considerably more cocaine than the rats who didn’t use alcohol and they were willing to harm themselves to do so.
The rats who’d been “primed” with alcohol became highly addicted as opposed to the rats who had not consumed alcohol. When the researchers made it so that no cocaine came out when the buttons were pressed, the alcoholic rats feverishly demanded more cocaine than the non-alcoholic rats. On average, the rats that had not consumed alcohol pushed the cocaine button eighteen times, while the alcoholic rats pushed it fifty-eight times.
Rats Continue Demand More Cocaine Even Though They Must Receive A Shock To Get It
One of the more fascinating elements of the study was what the researchers learned about what the rats were willing to go through to get their cocaine.
The rats that had been primed with alcohol were willing to do anything to get the drug. At some point in the experiment, the researchers delivered a shock with the button that would administer the cocaine. The rats were still willing to push the button and be shocked with electricity if it meant they would get their drug.
Even at the highest shock intensity, the alcohol-primed rats were able to obtain as much as twenty-nine percent of the total cocaine they’d received without the shock. They were willing to continue to the electric show time and time again if that meant they had the hope of getting more of the drug.
This part of the experiment shows how powerful cocaine addiction can be and sheds some light on human behavior. The cocaine addict is willing to do just about whatever it takes to get their drug of choice. He or she will subject themselves to all kind of painful situations to get more cocaine – just like the rat willing to shock itself to get the drug.
Griffin And His Team Study Molecular Break Down Of The Rats’ Brains
After Griffin and his research team determined that alcohol had in fact acted as a gateway drug for the rats, they looked into the brains of rats that had been exposed to the same alcohol regime without the cocaine to see what was happening on the molecular level.
The team focused on the nucleus accumbens, which Griffin explained to Inverse Science is “one of the key brain regions that helps mediate drug-based reward.” There, they noticed two proteins from the histone deacetylase family, called HDAC4 and HDAC5, had begun to break down.
“HDACs sit inside the cell’s nucleus, which is like D.C. — where all the decisions are made,” said Griffin. “They prevent new proteins from being made in response to changes in environment. If they’re not around to do that, they can’t act as the brakes on the reward circuitry of the brain, which is what’s thought to lead to more compulsive reward seeking through drug use.”
How Decision-Making Is Affected By Continued Drug Use
It’s no secret that those who are under the influence of drugs make poor decisions if it means they will be rewarded with their drug of choice. This is especially true of cocaine addiction.
What Griffin and his team have shown is that continued alcohol use wears down the brain’s ability to make effective decisions not motivated by immediate reward. This happens on a molecular level.
This is quite fascinating when you think about it. When addicts and alcoholics get into recovery, they admit powerlessness in the First Step of the 12-Steps. Griffin’s research actually provides scientific evidence for this powerlessness by demonstrating that the brain loses its ability to make sound, rational decisions when it comes to alcohol use. Surely this is also true of other drugs as well.
Alcohol Only Primes The Brain For Addiction If It Is Used Repeatedly
According to Griffin, it appears that a substance is a gateway drug only if it’s used repeatedly.
The researchers point out that “the protein breakdown only happened in rats that had received the full 10-day exposure to alcohol; in rats who just had a two-day binge, the nucleus accumbens appeared to be normal. To the researchers, this was evidence that using a drug for only a short period of time doesn’t have as serious an effect on addiction as long-term drug use.”
The Study Proves That Alcohol Is a Gateway Drug
According to Inverse Science, “Griffin’s research shows a clear biological basis for the mechanisms behind the gateway drug theory, which suggests that medical interventions — say, a treatment that acts directly on the neuron’s HDAC proteins — are possible.”
Griffin commented, “It points our attention to some of the earlier stages and the developmental sequence of addiction from a public health standpoint.”
He pointed out that addiction is a complicated issue that cannot be treated with science alone.
“It has to be treated from both a medical, social, and a public health perspective,” Griffin said.
Understanding Cocaine Addiction In Humans
It’s one thing to conduct research that studies rats and their continued use of cocaine after consuming alcohol, but how does this relate to human beings? What the research from Griffin and his team tells us is that, most likely, when a human consumes mass quantities of alcohol over a period of time and then uses cocaine, they are more likely to demonstrate addictive tendencies toward cocaine than someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.
Griffin’s research did show that cocaine use does not lead to more alcohol use, by the way – ruling out cocaine as a potential gateway drug.
Many cocaine addicts have reported that when they use alcohol, they are triggered to use cocaine. This is why it is so important for recovering cocaine addicts to abstain from all drugs – especially alcohol – when they are seeking recovery.
Griffin’s research is ground-breaking. To his satisfaction, this study reveals that alcohol is a gateway drug that can lead to the prevalent addiction of harder substances. He says he will be interested to see a similar experiment conducted to determine if marijuana is also a gateway drug, although he does not have plans to conduct such an experiment.