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If you know anything about cocaine and caffeine, the effects of both are pretty similar. I speak from experience. Too much caffeine today instantly brings me back to early mornings and late nights on cocaine binges I frequently went on in Cancun. Cocaine is like potato chips, once you start you can’t stop. Coffee, on the other hand, can wake you up, but after a cup or two, you can normally call it quits. That’s why I found this new study so interesting. It says that in adolescent brains, the combination of caffeine and alcohol trigger changes similar to cocaine. This doesn’t surprise me one bit. Let’s take a look at what this means.

What the Study Says

Richard Van Rijn is an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Purdue University. He looked at the effects of highly caffeinated energy drinks and highly caffeinated alcohol in young mice. These types of studies obviously cannot be performed in human adolescents, but changes in mouse brains with drugs have been historically shown to correlate to those in humans in many drug studies.

Certain energy drinks can contain up to 10 times the caffeine as soda and are marketed to young people. Not much is known currently about the effects of these energy drinks, especially when consumed during adolescence. Researcher Van Rijn and his graduate student assistant Meridith Robins published the results of their study in the journal Alcohol. The results reflected that adolescent mice who were given high-caffeine energy drinks were not more likely to drink more alcohol as adults. However, they observed that when those high levels of caffeine were mixed with alcohol and given to adolescent mice, the mice showed physical and neurochemical signs that are similar to mice given cocaine. This result was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Van Rijn said the two substances combined resulted in pushing the mice over the limit causing changes in their behavior and changes in the neurochemistry in their brains. He believes the effects of the two substances together are ones that they would not see if they were only drinking one or the other. When given increased amounts of the caffeinated alcohol was given, the adolescent mice became more energetic, similar to mice given cocaine. The researchers also saw an increased level of the protein ΔFosB, a marker of long-term changes in neurochemistry seen in people who use drugs such as morphine and cocaine. These brain changes are the reason why it makes it so hard for drug and alcohol users to quit.

When those mice grew into adults, they showed a different preference for cocaine. The researchers found that mice exposed to caffeinated alcohol during adolescence were less sensitive to the enjoyable effects of cocaine. This could signify that such a mouse could require more cocaine to get the same feeling as a control mouse. In order to test the theory that Robins looked to see if mice exposed to caffeinated alcohol during adolescence would consume higher amounts of a similar substance that causes pleasurable effects. They used saccharine, an artificial sweetener. Their prediction was that if the mice showed a numbed sense of reward, they would then consume more saccharine. Conclusions showed that the caffeine-alcohol-exposed mice drank significantly more saccharine than mice exposed to water during adolescence. This confirms that the caffeine/alcohol-exposed mice must have had a chemical charge in the brain. Van Rijn said, “Their brains have been changed in such a way that they are more likely to abuse natural or pleasurable substances as adults.”

What this means for humans

Mixing drugs has always had the label of being “bad.” But for some of us, that encourages us to do it more. To adolescents combining drugs, alcohol, and medications may seem like double the fun, but it’s also double the risk. The unknown is the scariest, what combinations can be fatal? Symptoms for each combination can vary from mild to fatal.

Combining alcohol and cocaine can seem like a good idea at first. If you’re like me, used to blacking out and looking for any way to keep yourself alert and coherent, cocaine might succeed at keeping you less drunk. However, that strengthens your risk of cocaine addiction. Cocaine use can result in altered brain chemistry and changes in brain chemistry in teens can affect their ability to effectively experience pleasure. This could lead to impulsive and risky behavior in the future.

Now that we know consuming alcohol and caffeine together is similar to cocaine, let’s talk about how popular energy drinks are among adolescents. An 11 oz. Red Bull has about 106 milligrams of caffeine and other stimulants like taurine, guarana, and ginseng. Adults can typically handle about 300-400 milligrams of caffeine a day without consequences and because teens are not full-grown adults, their tolerance is even less. More than three cans of any energy drink in a day can be dangerous to an adolescent’s health. This risk worsens when alcohol and drugs are added to the equation.

Excessive energy drink use can result in headaches, insomnia, heart palpitations, and numbing of the skin. High caffeine intake can lead to a caffeine overdose and even caffeine addiction. Caffeine intoxication and caffeine withdrawal are both listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM.

It’s no secret caffeine can be dangerous, and it’s no secret alcohol is dangerous. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that combining the two can be a recipe for disaster strong enough to resemble cocaine. Caffeine intake should be monitoring and teen should not consume more than 2-3 energy drinks a day. Even if an adolescent is drinking a normal amount of caffeine, the need to drink it every day should be assessed.

This study proves that no dangerous substance is completely safe 100 percent of the time. Caffeine, alcohol, cocaine, whatever substance it is, proceed with caution or don’t use at all.