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Why is Nicotine a Gateway Drug?

Written by Jade McNulty BMS‘23 Neuro’23
Published on April 26, 2021

When walking down the street on a college campus, cigarette butts litter the asphalt. Though they were created to decrease cigarette use, e-cigarettes seem to have become just as addicting as everyday groups of students pass by with clouds of smoke in their trails. Simply put, electronic cigarettes have become the new teenage trend. In the United States, millions of adults have been diagnosed with tobacco use disorder, and the addiction does not stop there.          

A gateway drug is a habit-forming drug that can lead to the use of other addictive drugs. Examples of gateway drugs include nicotine, marijuana, and alcohol. These easily accessible drugs can start a domino effect of addiction by being a ‘gateway’ to more dangerous drugs. For instance, e-cigarettes, or vaping products,  are oftentimes a gateway drug to cigarettes due to the nicotine and habit forming they cause. Habit formation is when behaviors become automatic, like reaching for a cigarette after waking up. All habits are deeply embedded within the mind due to the rewarding feelings they bring. In the case of nicotine, the drug increases dopamine release in the mesolimbic area, the corpus striatum, and the frontal cortex and also decreases the inhibitory γ-aminobutyric acid response. This circuit reinforces behaviors that lead to those reward feelings.

Nearly 90% of cocaine users are or had been smokers at one time in their life.  This is due to the effects of nicotine on the brain. Though this trail of addiction may be linked to cross addiction, there is also a biological mechanism involved. The strengthening of synapses that leads to a long-lasting increase in signal transmission known as long-term potentiation seems to be a cause of forming new addictions. In a study documented in Science Translational Medicine, mice given nicotine in their water for a week showed increased activity in response to cocaine and showed changes in their brain signaling process. The link between nicotine and cocaine is there, and it’s scary.

Smoking, whether it be in cigarette or electronic form, has become too normalised. There needs to be more warnings and information about the dangerous effects of nicotine, specifically for the younger generation. These drugs have consequences. If you are in need of help managing a nicotine habit, check out this helpline.

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