I’ve become intrigued with dopamine. It seems to be popping up everywhere! My mom sent me a link recently about this new alcoholic beverage called Four Loko. It is essentially a 24 oz. alcohol-laced energy drink equivalent to ~three beers, a can of Red Bull, AND yes, one more thing, a shot of espresso. It gets its name from its four main ingredients: caffeine, taurine, guarana and alcohol.It is known on college campuses as “blackout in a can” and “liquid cocaine”.The Huffington Post featured a story titled Health Officials Warn About Getting Loco on “Four Loko.” It describes the potential negative repercussions that have been reported during consumption: blackouts, unwanted sex, alcohol poisoning, and even hospitalizations. Today the Boston Globe ran an article detailing its detrimental effects as well.
It’s a dangerous concoction and for this reason it got me thinking… What exactly are these four primary ingredients, together, doing to cause students to become dangerously drunk? Are they affecting the DA system? If so, how? Well, I did some research of my own to try to get some answers.
As we know, the DA system projects from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens (NA) and is involved in reward behaviors and addictive processes (i.e. alcoholism and drug addiction). Taurine in this case, is especially interesting because this amino acid is present in significant amounts all over the brain, including the NA. That said, Ericson, M (2006) and colleagues addressed the hypothesis that taurine increases DA levels in the NA. Researchers administered different concentrations of taurine into the NA of rats by reversed microdialysis (10 or 100 mM); both doses produced a significant increase in extracellular accumbal DA levels compared to baseline levels.
Along that same vein, past research has shown that there is a relationship between ethanol and the dopamine systems, specifically increasing dopamine levels (Chatterjee and Gerlai, 2009). Now, in combination with Guarana, which contains caffeine, and caffeine we may need to raise a red flag—pronto! Caffeine increases intracellular calcium concentrations, causing noradrenaline release and it also sensitizes dopamine receptors (Rockett & Putnam, 2002).
So finally to related this all back to alcohol intoxication: “The dopamine hypothesis…involves excessive activity of the DA system. Animal studies have shown dopaminergic activity to increase with increased release of dopamine when alcohol is administered” (Larson, M.F., 2010). So together, elevated dopamine activity and a sensitzation of the dopamine receptors is a recipe for disaster; it can severely hinder our bodily functions especially in the presence of FOUR ingredients that all act on the same system. Yikes!