Cocaine Brain: How Mixing Alcohol And Energy Drinks May Affect Adolescents

By Kelly Burch 10/31/16

A new study's findings show that mixing energy drinks and alcohol may have a negative impact on the adolescent brain.  

Cocaine Brain: How Mixing Alcohol And Energy Drinks May Affect Adolescents

A popular drink combination—alcohol and energy drinks—could trigger some very unhealthy changes in the adolescent brain, according to a new study

Researchers at Purdue University studied the effects of alcohol and highly caffeinated drinks on adolescent mice. They found that the combination of alcohol and caffeine had similar brain effects as morphine or cocaine. 

"It seems the two substances together push them over a limit that causes changes in their behavior and changes the neurochemistry in their brains," said Richard van Rijn, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology, who conducted the study. "We're clearly seeing effects of the combined drinks that we would not see if drinking one or the other.”

Despite the strong effects, combining alcohol and energy drinks remains a popular option for young people. That is particularly scary given that the study also found that the effects of drinking alcohol and high amounts of caffeine together lasts into adulthood. 

Mice who were exposed to the alcohol-caffeine combo were more likely to consume more alcohol as adults than a control group. Researchers also found increased levels of the protein ΔFosB, which indicates long-term neurochemical changes that are also present in users of cocaine and morphine. 

Changes brought on by that chemical can lead to a lifelong struggle with addiction. "That's one reason why it's so difficult for drug users to quit because of these lasting changes in the brain," van Rijn said.

The mice who consumed alcohol and caffeine in combination as adolescents were less affected by cocaine as adults.

"Mice that had been exposed to alcohol and caffeine were somewhat numb to the rewarding effects of cocaine as adults," van Rijn said. "Mice that were exposed to highly caffeinated alcoholic drinks later found cocaine wasn't as pleasurable. They may then use more cocaine to get the same effect.”

Researchers also found that the mice were more likely to over-consume sugar as adults. "Their brains have been changed in such a way that they are more likely to abuse natural or pleasurable substances as adults," van Rijn said.

Although this study cannot be replicated in humans because of ethical reasons, van Rijn said he will go on to study other legal psychostimulatory substances that might have long-term effects on brain development. His work is supported in part by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation/Foundation for Alcohol Research.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.