It seems that every generation feels the need to push the limits when it comes to risky behavior. For teens today, that means bypassing the old-fashioned rum-and-Cokes and heading straight for the rum-and-Red Bull. But new research shows that mixing highly caffeinated energy drinks with alcohol could have exponentially dangerous effects for the teen brain — effects that may last well into adulthood.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at Purdue University, found that when teen brains are exposed to a combination of highly caffeinated beverages and alcohol, chemical changes occur that are similar to those seen in teens who use cocaine.
Researchers conducted their studies on mice because it wouldn't be exactly ethical to ask teens to use either cocaine or highly caffeinated alcoholic beverages. Richard van Rijn, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Purdue University and the lead author of the study, told Seeker, "Mouse brains have been shown to correlate with humans brains in many drug studies."
Van Rijn and his team found that when the mice drank highly caffeinated beverages in their adolescent development, they were not more likely to develop issues with substance abuse as adults. But when those energy drinks were combined with alcohol, the mice exhibited brain changes similar to those seen in mice who were given cocaine. And these mice were much more likely to abuse alcohol and other controlled substances as adults.
"Their brains have been changed in such a way that they are more likely to abuse natural or pleasurable substances as adults," van Rijn said.
Why would energy drinks and alcohol cause such an intense reaction? According to the study, both caffeine and alcohol release small amounts of dopamine — a feel-good hormone — in the brain. That's why your morning cup of coffee or your evening nightcap feel so good going down.
But the amount of caffeine in an energy drink may be 10 times that of your average soda, amping up its effects exponentially. That combination of high levels of caffeine along with alcohol opens a floodgate of dopamine that is similar to that seen in the brain after cocaine use. And by flooding the teen brain with these chemicals, those teens are more likely to need greater and greater levels of drugs and alcohol in order to achieve that same feel-good effect when they get older.
It's important to reemphasize here that these experiments were conducted on mice. And the amount of highly caffeinated alcoholic beverages that the mice were exposed to was intense — the equivalent of someone drinking these beverages on a "very regular basis" between the ages of 10 and 20 years old. So these results are certainly skewed toward extraordinary levels. But they also open up a conversation about the safety of combining energy drinks with alcohol and the dangers of pushing risky behavior to the extreme.