Is Nicotine a “Gateway Drug” for Cocaine?

November 03, 2011

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Science has established that cigarette smoking harms nearly every organ in the human body, causing lung and other cancers, heart disease, reproductive damage and many other serious diseases.

Now a new study from the National Institutes of Health highlights another insidious way in which tobacco use can harm health: Nicotine may be a 'gateway drug' that makes the brain more susceptible to addiction to cocaine, and possibly other illicit drugs.

In the new study, researchers found that mice exposed first to nicotine showed an increased response to cocaine, exhibiting more characteristics of addiction. In contrast, mice exposed to cocaine first did not show an increased response to nicotine.

While other studies have found that smoking typically precedes other drug use, the new study is the first to find a biological mechanism by which nicotine can serve as a gateway drug. It found that nicotine causes changes in specific genes linked to addiction that make the brain more responsive to cocaine.

A separate part of the study looked at patterns of smoking and cocaine use in humans. It found that the rate of cocaine dependence was higher among cocaine users who smoked prior to starting cocaine compared to those who tried cocaine prior to smoking.

As The Los Angeles Times points out, the study has profound implications. It indicates that reducing tobacco use could have the dual benefit of preventing the death and disease caused by tobacco and helping win the fight against cocaine and other illicit drugs.

As the NIH's press release states, 'These findings in mice suggest that if nicotine has similar effects in humans, effective smoking prevention efforts would not only prevent the negative health consequences associated with smoking but could also decrease the risk of progression and addiction to cocaine and possibly other illicit drug use.'

This study is one more reason why elected officials at all levels must make reducing tobacco use a top priority.

They study was conducted by researchers at Columbia University and published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Photo credit: National Institutes of Health