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Study Shows that E-Cigarettes May Increase Risk of Drug Abuse

Sep 10, 2014

A new study suggests that electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, can act as a “gateway drug” and increase the likelihood that users will try other drugs such as cocaine and marijuana. The findings were presented at the Massachusetts Medical Society, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine

Columbia researchers Denise B. Kandel, PhD and Eric R. Kandel, MD conducted the study, according to a Columbia University news release. Dr. Denise Kandel, who is a professor of sociomedical sciences (in psychiatry) at the Department of Psychiatry and Mailman School of Public Health, said in the release that "While e-cigarettes do eliminate some of the health effects associated with combustible tobacco, they are pure nicotine-delivery devices,"

Dr. Eric Kandel is a University Professor and Kavli Professor of Brain Science, co-director of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, and senior investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at CUMC. In 2000, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries focusing on the molecular basis of memory. “E-cigarettes have the same physiological effects on the brain and may pose the same risk of addiction to other drugs as regular cigarettes, especially in adolescence during a critical period of brain development. We don't yet know whether e-cigarettes will prove to be a gateway to the use of conventional cigarettes and illicit drugs, but that's certainly a possibility," he said in the release.

Research suggests that e-cigarettes are mostly used by long-term smokers who have extreme difficulty quitting. Still, researchers emphasize that e-cigarette use is rising exponentially in adolescents and young adults. “The effects we saw in adult mice are probably even stronger in adolescent animals,” Dr. Eric Kandel said. “E-cigarettes may be a gateway to both combustible cigarettes and illicit drugs. Therefore, we should do all we can to protect young people from the harmful effects of nicotine and the risks of progressing to illicit drugs.”

In the lecture about their findings, the Kandels discuss earlier work Denise Kandel did on the gateway hypothesis and how nicotine could function as a gateway drug. Additionally, they point to other studies they did in collaboration with other researchers showing that in mice, nicotine exposure changes the brain’s biochemical activity and triggers activation of a gene related to reward. Subsequently, nicotine primes the brain for a response to cocaine, according to the release.

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