Young Rats Exposed to Nicotine Will Drink More Alcohol Than Those Exposed During Adulthood

Nicotine may increase risk for overindulging in other drugs. A pair smoke cigarettes after Vienna did away with its no-smoking ban. Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

Smoking is always bad for you, but new research suggests that picking up this habit in your teens could be even worse than lighting up later in life. That's because early exposure to nicotine may change the way the brain responds to rewards and put users at greater risk to abuse alcohol, a new animal study has found.

The research, published online in Cell Reports this week, focused on how nicotine exposure effects rats behavior and brain activity. For their research, the team exposed rats to nicotine during their adolescence via daily injections and had a control group of adolescent rats raised without nicotine exposure. In addition, there was a third group of rats who were exposed to daily nicotine injections during adulthood. When all rats reached adulthood, the groups were allowed to push a lever in order to obtain a slightly sweetened alcoholic drink when they chose.

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Results revealed that rats who were exposed to nicotine during adolescence drank more alcohol than rats who were not exposed to nicotine and more than rats where were exposed to nicotine during adulthood.

The younger you start using nicotine products, the more dangerous the drug may be. Two individuals drink coffee and smoke a cigarette after Vienna scrapped their smoking ban. Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

The study also looked at the brain of the three groups of rats, especially the neurotransmitter GABA. This neurotransmitter is associated with regulating anxiety and works to calm down certain brain activity.

The brains of mice who were exposed to nicotine during adolescence had their GABA signals altered. This alteration affected the rats reward system, leading them to seek out more self-administered alcohol as adults.

Although an animal study, lead study researcher John Dani, chair of Neuroscience at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told Newsweek that this research still has important implications for humans. According to Dani, although teenage tobacco use is decreasing, in recent years nicotine vaping and electronic cigarette use has increased among young Americans.

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"The evidence continues to accumulate that adolescent nicotine also is associated with a greater likelihood of using other addictive drugs," Dani told Newsweek. "These problems are compounded because nicotine vaping appeals to a group of adolescents who would not otherwise use addictive drugs."

In addition, Dani explained that nicotine use during adolescence in rats not only enhanced alcohol self-administration but also cocaine self-administration. Although a large number of teenage e-cig users may not use any other traditional drugs, the nicotine may put them at risk for other addictive substances when they would not have been at risk otherwise.