Substance abuse disorders are a leading cause of medical morbidity, mortality, and health expenditure in the United States. With the majority of adult U.S. smokers beginning smoking before 18 years of age, it is well known that adolescence and early adulthood are times where smoking, alcohol consumption, and substance use are most commonly experimented with. Indeed, over 40% of adult alcoholics experience alcoholism-related symptoms between the ages of 15 and 19, with 80% of all cases of alcoholism being observed in individuals before the age of 30.
Research carried out by a team of neuroscientists at the Baylor College of Medicine have demonstrated that smoking can increase the likelihood of a person becoming an alcoholic. This research team, led by the renowned Texas neuroscientist, Dr. John Dani, carried out a series of experiments on rats, exposing them firstly to nicotine, then to alcohol. The results revealed that nicotine-exposed rats drank alcohol more often than non-exposed rats. When the investigators studied the neurological pathways and signaling in these rodents, it was observed that signaling of the reward system in the brain was slower in nicotine exposed rats when they consumed alcohol.
Dr, Dani commented ,“Young people typically experiment with nicotine from tobacco in their teens, and that exposure possibly contributes to a greater vulnerability to alcohol abuse later in life. Therefore, greater vigilance is called for to prevent the initial exposure to nicotine and to follow those at risk.” In addition this work suggested that the slowing of the reward system and brain signaling in response to alcohol may arise as a result of the activation of stress hormones or by an increase in inhibitory signaling in the brain. Dr. Dani highlighted that “stress hormones are candidate targets for prevention or treatment therapies.”
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