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Energy drinks mixed with alcohol can spark changes in the teenage brain in a way similar to cocaine, according to a new study from researchers at Indiana’s Purdue University.

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Richard van Rijn, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology, observed the effects of highly caffeinated energy drinks and highly caffeinated alcohol in adolescent mice.

What he found, along with graduate student Meredith Robins, was that adolescent mice that were given high levels of caffeine and alcohol exhibited physical and neurochemical symptoms similar to mice given cocaine.

“It seems the two substances together push them over a limit that causes changes in their behavior and changes the neurochemistry in their brains,” van Rijn said.

“We’re clearly seeing effects of the combined drinks that we would not see if drinking one or the other.”

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In recent years, it has become more commonplace to mix alcohol with highly caffeinated energy drinks.

The mice became more and more active with continued exposure to the caffeinated alcohol, similar to those that were given cocaine. Researchers also detected heightened levels of the protein ΔFosB, which indicates long-term changes in neurochemistry and is increased in those who abuse drugs like cocaine or morphine.

“That’s one reason why it’s so difficult for drug users to quit because of these lasting changes in the brain,” van Rijn said.

As adults, those same mice experienced cocaine in a decidedly different way, researchers found. Mice exposed to caffeinated alcohol during adolescence were less sensitive to the pleasurable effects of cocaine, meaning they would need more cocaine to get the same feeling as a control mouse.

“Mice that had been exposed to alcohol and caffeine were somewhat numb to the rewarding effects of cocaine as adults,” van Rijn said.

“Mice that were exposed to highly caffeinated alcoholic drinks later found cocaine wasn’t as pleasurable. They may then use more cocaine to get the same effect.”

Researchers wanted to find out if the mice exposed to caffeinated alcohol during adolescence would consume increased amounts of a similarly pleasurable substance, like an artificial sweetener. Their assumption was that if the mice demonstrated a numbed sense of reward, they would consume more of the artificial sweetener. What they found…

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