E-Cigarettes Could Prime Brain for Other Addictive Substances

Electronic nicotine delivery could mirror physiological effects on the brain caused by regular cigarettes

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) As electronic cigarettes become more popular, the medical community is working to understand their health effects.

No matter what form it comes in, nicotine affects the brain the same way, noted the authors of a recent published lecture.

The authors raised concerns that e-cigs could also serve as a gateway to other addictive drugs.

"Talk to a medical professional about how to quit smoking."

The lecture was presented to the Massachusetts Medical Society by Columbia University researchers Eric Kandel, MD, and Denise Kandel, PhD.

The authors suggested that e-cigs, like their traditional counterpart, could serve as a “gateway drug,” lowering the addiction threshold for harder substances.

E-cigs heat a liquid nicotine solution. The user inhales the vapor.

The devices are billed as a way to quit smoking because the user can slowly dial down the nicotine amount.

“While e-cigarettes do eliminate some of the health effects associated with combustible tobacco, they are pure nicotine-delivery devices,” Dr. Denise Kandel said in a press release.

She added that, because the nicotine from an e-cig has the same effects on the brain as a regular cigarette, the devices can “pose the same risk of addiction to other drugs.”

“Nicotine clearly acts as a gateway drug on the brain, and this effect is likely to occur whether the exposure comes from smoking cigarettes, passive tobacco smoke, or e-cigarettes," she said.

The authors used data from a 2004 sample that suggested nicotine primed the brain to respond to cocaine.

That study found that the rate of cocaine addiction was highest among people who started using the drug after smoking cigarettes.

The authors also pointed out that e-cigs were gaining popularity among young adults.

“We should do all we can to protect young people from the harmful effects of nicotine and the risks of progressing to illicit drugs,” Dr. Eric Kandel said in a press release.

The lecture was published online Sept. 3 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The National Institutes of Health and Howard Hughes Medical Institute funded the research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
September 3, 2014
Last Updated:
September 4, 2014