A new study has found that alcohol use prior to cocaine use could drive compulsive and addictive drug-seeking behaviors.
The study was conducted on rats by a team of researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center and sheds further evidence to the “gateway drug hypothesis.”
The gateway drug hypothesis, as described by Denise Kandal, an epidemiologist from Columbia University, is the idea that people who get involved with drugs follow a certain sequence, where some drugs preface other drugs.
But proving this hypothesis is difficult because of how difficult it would be to gather the right data in advance. But this team of researchers found that by giving rats cocaine and alcohol in a lab setting, they could track the rat’s compulsive tendencies.
For the study, several groups of rats were given doses of cocaine, released through a lever that the rats operated. One of the groups was given a water bottle of alcohol for two hours before the cocaine was administered for ten days.
One group was not given any alcohol before cocaine use, and another group of rats was given both alcohol and cocaine at the same time.
The rats exposed to alcohol before cocaine use showed signs of cocaine-addiction, looking to get the drug even when they received a small electric shock in doing so.
During periods when the drug was not released, the rats who had been given alcohol were persistent in their efforts to get the drug, pressing the lever 58 times.
Rats without prior alcohol use were not as inclined to seek out the drug.
The researchers were able to target what was causing such a strong inclination towards cocaine addiction in the rats who had alcohol beforehand, finding that alcohol breaks down important proteins in the region of the brain that is responsible for reward-based memory.
The study shows the role that alcohol and nicotine play as gateway drugs, and just how they contribute to compulsive and addictive behaviors with other drugs down the line.
The researchers hope this will prompt further studies to see if other drugs have similar reactions to alcohol in the brain, and also help fine-tune intervention and outreach programs once risk factors for addictions are identified.