May 26, 2019  Last Update: November 27, 2017, 8:52 pm

Smoking Cigarettes Boosts Cocaine Response

New science suggests cigarettes maybe a real gateway to cocaine addiction.

New science shows that smoking cigarettes causes genetic changes that lead to greater sensitivity to cocaine response, in mice. Survey data suggest that this is true in humans, as well.

The latest work was conducted by neurobiologist Eric Kandel and his wife, epidemiologist Denise Kandel, from Columbia University.

Denise has been investigating links between smoking and addiction for over 35 years. Eric is a top authority on neuroscience, co-author of the classic textbook of neuroscience, and winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons.

“in mice at least, nicotine causes epigenetic changes — long-lasting changes in the control of gene expression — that subsequently boost the response to cocaine.”

"smoking increases the risk of cocaine dependency in people"

This work is seen as foundational for a new wave of scientific research into “gateway substances”, the substances which may predispose an individual to further addiction to more dangerous and more addictive substances. In this case, teenage cigarette smoking is shown to cause genetic changes that predispose individuals to be more susceptible to cocaine addiction. Probably.

Neuroscience is not easy, and the explanations for this sort of investigation gets a little complicated:

"Nicotine works on the DNA-packaging system, known as chromatin. Nicotine loosens chromatin, a complex material in which DNA is packaged up by histones and other proteins, by enhancing a process called histone acetylation, catalyzed by acetylase enzymes. Acetylation effectively opens up the packaging, enabling greater transcription of the FosB gene. Nicotine does this by inhibiting another enzyme involved in gene regulation, histone deacetylase, which has the opposite effect on chromatin."

This latest work will have broad consequences. Research into “gateway drugs” is controversial, and findings reach back across the border from addiction (which is clearly a bad thing)  into areas that are less-bad, and often involve large sums of legal money from commerce — like social drinking and smoking.

Laura Bierut of Washington University in St. Louis is quoted to say “the Columbia study suggests that existing policies aimed at cutting smoking may be having a larger effect on public health than thought.

"people don’t want to believe that teenage smoking will sensitize them to other drugs", but it does.

Read the excellent report from Nature here.


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