Can Nicotine Exposure In Adolescence Impact Drinking In Adulthood?

By Beth Leipholtz 05/03/18

Researchers examined whether early nicotine exposure could actually promote pathological drug use in adulthood.

hand holding a lit cigarette

While it’s known that using nicotine isn’t a healthy habit, it may carry even more of a risk for adolescents. 

A new study published in Cell Press has found that when adolescents are exposed to nicotine, they are more likely to drink alcohol during adulthood than those who are not exposed to it during adolescence.  

“Adolescence is a neurodevelopmental window marked by major reorganization of limbic brain regions important for reward processing,” the researchers wrote. “Nicotine exposure may, therefore, alter brain development to promote pathological drug use later in life.”

This is due to the fact that nicotine exposure during adolescence affects the brain’s reward center by changing the neuronal circuitry. 

"This work on adolescent rats is particularly important because in recent years nicotine vaping with electronic cigarettes has increased among high school and middle school students," said John Dani, one of the authors from the University of Pennsylvania.

According to Penn Medicine, during the study, researchers gave daily injections of nicotine to two groups of rats—those in adolescence and those in adulthood. After doing so, they waited until the younger rats reached adulthood and then began monitoring alcohol self-administration. 

Results revealed that the rats that had been given nicotine at a younger age pushed a lever to be given alcohol more often than the rats that were exposed to nicotine during adulthood or not exposed at all, the article states.

Researchers believe this is because the exposure to nicotine at an earlier age affected gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), and as a result, affected the “inhibitory midbrain circuitry.”

Researchers also came to the conclusion that the reward-mediating circuitry of the brain was affected by early nicotine exposure. 

“Specifically, they found that these neurons less efficiently regulated chloride movement across the outer cell membrane, and this basic function altered alcohol's influence over the midbrain reward center,” the article stated. 

While these results indicate that adolescent exposure to nicotine affects alcohol intake later in life, more research may be necessary in order to make concrete claims.

In conclusion, the study authors stated, “Taken together, these results reveal that adolescent nicotine exposure induces long-lasting alterations in mesolimbic responses to ethanol and promotes ethanol consumption in adulthood. Thus, adolescent tobacco use may increase the risk for excessive alcohol drinking in adulthood.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.