Heavy Drinking Fuels Cocaine Consumption, Study Finds

Laboratory experiments by American researchers point to a heightened susceptibility to the mind-altering effects of cocaine in consumers of the drug who also regularly binge on alcohol.

Excessive alcohol consumption is relatively common in people who use/abuse the powerful stimulant drug cocaine. In a study published in May 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the Wake Forest School of Medicine used a series of laboratory experiments conducted on rhesus monkeys to assess the impact that chronic drinking has on the chemical effects of cocaine inside the brain. These researchers concluded that chronic heavy drinkers who binge on alcohol may inadvertently make themselves more sensitive to cocaine and thereby promote continued consumption of the drug.

Cocaine Consumption and Harm

One and a half-million Americans consume cocaine in the average month, according to recent figures compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This level of intake places the drug behind only marijuana and improperly used prescription opioids on the list of popular illicit/illegal substances. (The consumption rate for cocaine is also roughly the same as the rate for improperly used prescription tranquilizers.) Cocaine use has remained fairly stable in the U.S. since 2009 after a period of increased consumption in the early and mid-2000s.

Like many other mind-altering substances, cocaine produces an addiction risk by triggering euphoric sensations in the brain’s pleasure center and changing the pleasure center’s daily working environment. (The American Psychiatric Association includes all diagnosable cases of cocaine addiction and non-addicted cocaine abuse in a category of illness called stimulant use disorder.) The drug also seriously alters organ function by speeding up the typical rate of nerve cell activity inside the brain and spinal cord. Overdose remains a constant risk for all cocaine consumers. This is true because relatively small and/or unpredictable doses of the drug can lead to highly damaging organ function change. More than 5,000 Americans died from cocaine overdoses in 2013, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports. Men overdose on the drug much more often than women.

Cocaine and Alcohol Use

Cocaine use is more dangerous when combined with alcohol consumption. This is true, in large part, because alcohol and cocaine processing in the liver leads to the production of a third hybrid substance called cocaethylene. Cocaethylene promotes further substance intake by increasing the amount of euphoria generated inside the pleasure center. It also places a heavier burden on heart function and increases the odds that a cocaine consumer will die from cardiac arrest (complete stoppage of the heart’s pumping activity).

Chronic Drinking and Cocaine Sensitivity

Alcohol bingers consume enough alcohol to get legally drunk in two hours or less. In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the Wake Forest School of Medicine researchers used six rhesus monkeys as stand-ins for human beings in a project designed to determine if chronic alcohol binging alters the effects of cocaine inside the brain and promotes further cocaine intake. At the beginning of the project, the monkeys were given open access to a self-administered supply of cocaine. Next, for five days a week, the researchers fed the monkeys enough alcohol to simulate the results of binge drinking in just a single hour; this period of enforced alcohol binging lasted for eight weeks. The researchers measured each animal’s willingness to use cocaine while binging on alcohol.

The researchers concluded that, while binge drinking, the monkeys displayed a clear tendency to increase the frequency of their consumption of relatively low doses of cocaine. Interestingly, the monkeys did not display an increased tendency to consume large doses of cocaine while binge drinking. In addition, extreme amounts of alcohol decreased the animals’ willingness to consume even low doses of the drug. When the alcohol binging experiment came to an end, half of the monkeys reduced their cocaine intake to the amount consumed before alcohol was introduced.

The study’s authors believe that the preference for low doses of cocaine in the alcohol-binging monkeys points to a substantially heightened sensitivity to the effects of the drug. They also report that the underlying mechanism for this heightened sensitivity may be increased susceptibility to rewarding sensations inside the brain’s pleasure center. Interestingly, the authors did not attribute this increased sensitivity to formation of cocaethylene in the liver.

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