Mixing alcohol, energy drinks mimics negative effects of cocaine on brain

Luis Britez
Science & Tech Correspondent

If you are thinking about mixing alcohol and energy drinks this upcoming weekend, think again.

A study performed by Richard van Rijn, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Purdue University, found that highly caffinated and alcoholic beverages affected the brain similarly to someone consuming cocaine. Seeking the effects of the two beverages on mice, the changes discovered in the mice brains correlated to the changes found in humans who consumed drugs according to a Purdue University Study.

Performing two studies alongside graduate student Meredith Robins, van Rijn initially observed that adolescent mice who consumed high-caffeine energy drinks were no more likely than those who consumed nothing to drink more alcohol. The combination of alcohol and energy drinks, which have up to ten times more caffeine than soda, painted a new picture with their study, however. They found in their subsequent study that mice who consumed mixed alcohol with high levels of caffeine displayed active behaviors along with both physical and neurochemical signs that were similar to mice under the influence of cocaine.

To explain the effects of cocaine when ingested, cocaine helps release a brain chemical called dopamine into the brain circuits that control movement and pleasure. By preventing dopamine from recycling, the excess dopamine levels present in the brain disrupt brain functions, leading to an extreme high that is desired by the users. The side effects of extreme energy, mood swings, hypersensitivity and paranoia cause a strong desire for the drug. The reward mechanism associated with dopamine is so high from the consumption of cocaine that it leads to the addiction of this drug. The study also noted elevated levels of the protein ΔFosB, which is generally seen with the abuse of opioids.

Similarly to a drug user needing more and more cocaine to experience a high, van Rijn and Robins suggested that their experimental group was desensitized to the effects of cocaine. In order to test their hypothesis, Robins used the mice intoxicated with the caffinated alcohol and presented them with saccharine, a similarly pleasurable artificial sweetener. By comparing the experimental group and the control group (that consumed only water), they found that the mice with the caffeine and alcohol in their systems drank substantially more saccharine than the group of mice that only consumed water.

This helped confirm that the mice with caffeine and alcohol in their systems had a chemical change in their brains.
The results of the study suggest the similarities in effects on the brain from both mixed alcoholic energy beverages and cocaine is a cause of addiction. According to van Rijn, “That’s one reason why it’s so difficult for drug users to quit: because of these lasting changes in the brain.” With alcoholism already an issue, this dangerous combination can be detrimental to one’s well being in the long run of their life.

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