Cigarette Smoking Leads to Coke?

Nicotine may alter the brain’s response to cocaine, supporting the idea that the legal drug may serve as a "gateway" to the use of illegal substances.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

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Cigarette smokers may be more inclined to crave cocaine, according to a study published this week (November 2) in Science Translational Medicine, which found that the nicotine can result in gene regulation changes that boost the response of mouse brains to the drug.

Scientists have long recognized the trend that drug users tend to start with cigarettes and alcohol before moving on to harder drugs, thus tagging the legal substances with the label "gateway drugs." But there was no mechanism to explain the trend, and the idea has been a continued source of controversy.

In the current study, epidemiologist Denise Kandel at Columbia University, New York, who originally reported on the "gateway drug" idea in 1975, and her husband Eric, a Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist who spoke with The Scientist just last month about his research, teamed up with other colleagues to see if there was a...

The researchers also analyzed epidemiological data of 1,160 high school students and found that most cocaine users begin using coke after they start smoking, and that smoking increased the risk of addiction to the drug.

"This paper is exciting because it is one of the first well-defined characterizations of gene priming by a drug," neurobiologist Alfred Robison of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York told Nature.

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