Drinking highly caffeinated alcoholic beverages causes brain changes comparable to changes caused by taking cocaine, according to researchers at Purdue University. The effects, which include changes in brain neurochemistry and behavior changes, can last into adulthood.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, involved studying the brain changes of mice who have been given highly caffeinated energy drinks and highly caffeinated alcohol. The research team’s previous research, which was published in the journal Alcohol, showed that those who drink high-caffeine energy drinks were not more likely to drink more alcohol as adults.

However, the new study found that mixing energy drinks with alcohol leads to brain changes similar to changes caused by cocaine. The protein ΔFosB, a biomarker of long-term changes in brain neurochemistry, was also detected in high levels in mice who received the energy drink mixed with alcohol. Apparently, people who abuse drugs like cocaine or morphine also have elevated levels of this protein.

The lasting changes is one of the reasons why quitting drugs is difficult. Moreover, the mice who took caffeinated alcohol were more likely to become less sensitive to cocaine’s effects when they become adults. This means that they would take more cocaine to feel its pleasurable effects.

“Mice that had been exposed to alcohol and caffeine were somewhat numb to the rewarding effects of cocaine as adults,” says Richard van Rijn, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology. “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.”

The team plans to study more about the effects of other psychostimulatory substances that are commercially available.  The researchers also plan to study ethylphenidate, a drug similar to methylphenidate or Ritalin, which is used for patients with attention deficit disorder. They are also trying to solve how to treat alcohol use disorder.

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