Animal Welfare

A Texas Researcher Gave Lab Rats Nicotine and Booze. They Enjoyed Both.

Tobacco and alcohol, like milk and cookies, Jay Z and Beyonce, and emphysema and liver disease, are perfect companions. There's just something about going out for a drink that makes you want to light up a cigarette, and something about going out for a smoke that makes you want a drink.

Chances are, you've never given much thought to why booze and nicotine make such an irresistible pairing, but Baylor University Medical Center's Dr. John Dani has. He's spent the last decade studying the neorological impact of drug addiction, with a particular focus on nicotine. That led him to ponder the drink/smoke connection, which led to a study published Thursday in the journal Neuron.

Here, in general terms, is what the paper suggests: Alcohol makes you happy, up to a point. An evening of boozing can boost levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, creating a feeling of joy. Too much boozing has the opposite effect. Attaining that joyous feeling takes more and more drinks over time, all the while dulling the sober mind's ability to manufacture its own pleasure. Nicotine addiction's stress hormones have a similar impact. And so, when people smoke, it takes more drinking to make them happy.

"Young people typically experiment with nicotine from tobacco in their teens, and that exposure possibly contributes to a greater vulnerability to alcohol abuse later in life. Therefore, greater vigilance is called for to prevent the initial exposure to nicotine and to follow those at risk," Dani told Medical Daily. "In addition, our work suggests that stress hormones are candidate targets for prevention or treatment therapies."

But doing a controlled experiment in a laboratory setting with drinking, smoking human beings is difficult, if not impossible, which is why Dani and his team turned to rats. The researchers began by giving a group of animals a hit of nicotine then, later, they exposed them to alcohol, which they were allowed to self-administer (e.g. pour their own shots). The nicotine cleared itself from the rodents' system within 90 minutes, but they were still drinking a lot of booze 15 hours later. Dani concluded they were simply chasing their increasingly elusive buzz, heedless of the next morning's consequences.

That sounds painfully familiar.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson