As an emerging alternative to smoking cigarettes, e-cigarettes have become the subject of tons of research. A recent study appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine explains results that nicotine in any form serves as a “gateway drug” priming the brain for harder drugs to keep the reward system satisfied. Husband-wife researchers, Denise Kandel and Eric Kandel, have been studying nicotine for years and their recent findings reveal risks associated with the newly popular e-cigarette.
Interestingly enough, when nicotine was administered to mice before cocaine, they responded more powerfully to the cocaine compared to the mice that did not receive nicotine. The reason is that nicotine stimulates a reward-related gene, which causes dramatically enhanced effects of cocaine. Lowered inhibitions are also a reported symptom of the nicotine/cocaine combination.
Once the reward gene is activated, the mice behaved differently on cocaine. They were more active and spent an excessive amount of time in the area where they received their food. The scientists believe that this is because they were craving cocaine and were attempting to satisfy that craving by seeking out more from the space where they were fed.
E-cigarettes were originally introduced as a healthier alternative to smoking. The devices do not contain the tar and chemicals that cigarettes do, however they do have the same amount of nicotine. The idea was that smokers could get their nicotine fix without the dangerous components that are in cigarettes. E-cigarettes were advertised as the best way to quit smoking. Many people have embraced e-cigarettes and big tobacco companies have become invested, but not that much research was available before they hit the market.
The connection between e-cigarettes and cocaine is alarming to some because a device that was intended to help people quit smoking cigarettes may actually lead to more dangerous behavior.
“This is a powerful facilitator for addiction to cocaine and perhaps other drugs as well. If people knew that this is in fact the danger they’d be much less enthusiastic about using nicotine,” explains Eric Kandel. Addressing the damage that nicotine has on the brain is a bit of a new take – as most people focus on the damage that it creates in the body.
“We’ve worked very hard to reduce smoking in this country, and I think it’s been a fantastic success,” Denise says. With the introduction of e-cigarettes, “Now I think we’re on the verge of destroying all of the progress that we’ve [made].”