Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

Does Coffee Enhance Marijuana?

At low doses, no; at high doses, yes. So drink up!

A study published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience from the Integrative Neurobiology Section of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a branch of the National Institutes of Health has finally provided a definitive answer: Yes, No, and it depends. I realize that sounds confusing, but their discovery does provide some fascinating insights into the workings of the brain and why humans find coffee and marijuana so enjoyable. Their euphoric effects may be related to each other.

Your first question might be “why does anyone care?” These scientists were motivated to investigate this question following some surprising results using monkeys who were addicted the active ingredient in marijuana, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These monkeys could freely self-administer as much or little of THC as they wished. When drugs like caffeine were also administered the monkeys either increased or decreased their dosage of THC. The scientists were interested in understanding how this happened.

Caffeine has only one know action in the brain; it blocks the neurotransmitter receptor for the chemical adenosine. Adenosine receptors live on both sides of synapses. A synapse is the connection between one neuron and the next. Thus, adenosine receptors are involved in controlling both sides of the synapse. What the scientists discovered was that blocking the presynaptic adenosine receptors caused the monkeys to stop self-administering THC. In contrast, blocking the post-synaptic adenosine receptors caused the monkeys to increase their self-administration of THC.

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The problem is that coffee cannot tell the difference between a pre- or post-synaptic adenosine receptor. This is where the story becomes quite interesting. The results of this study suggest that low doses of caffeine should decrease marijuana self-administration and that high doses of caffeine will increase marijuana self-administration. What remains unknown is whether drinking lots of coffee will enhance the marijuana euphoria.

A recent report in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research by a group of scientists from Rome explored the possibility that coffee’s addictive properties also involve the brain’s marijuana-like neurotransmitter system. This is how it all seems to work.

When you first started drinking coffee, the arousal was all you wanted and also all that you got. Still, being more attentive and vigilant was all you needed to get through the day. Ultimately, due to tolerance, you needed more and more coffee each day to achieve the same level of arousal and vigilance. While all of this was occurring, something else far more mysterious was happening inside your brain; caffeine had begun stimulating your brain’s endogenous marijuana neurotransmitter system. These biochemical adjustments make avoiding that third or fourth cup of coffee even harder to accomplish.

Apparently, high doses of coffee makes us feel so good because it is able to tap into virtually every reward system our brain has evolved. Hidden within that hot black silken elixir is a chemical that has taken over your brain by mimicking the actions of marijuana. Go ahead and have another cup; I’m going to.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford University Press)

TED talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SvkaK2Al0o&feature=plcp

Marijuana and Coffee are Good for the Brain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uVXs6CY2ps

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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