Elevated Norepinephrine may be a Unifying Etiological Factor in the Abuse of a Broad Range of Substances: Alcohol, Nicotine, Marijuana, Heroin, Cocaine, and Caffeine

Subst Abuse. 2013 Oct 13;7:171-83. doi: 10.4137/SART.S13019.


A wide range of commonly abused drugs have effects on the noradrenergic neurotransmitter system, including alterations during acute intoxication and chronic use of these drugs. It is not established, however, that individual differences in noradrenergic signaling, which may be present prior to use of drugs, predispose certain persons to substance abuse. This paper puts forth the novel hypothesis that elevated noradrenergic signaling, which may be raised largely due to genetics but also due to environmental factors, is an etiological factor in the abuse of a wide range of substances, including alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and caffeine. Data are reviewed for each of these drugs comprising their interaction with norepinephrine during acute intoxication, long-term use, subsequent withdrawal, and stress-induced relapse. In general, the data suggest that these drugs acutely boost noradrenergic signaling, whereas long-term use also affects this neurotransmitter system, possibly suppressing it. During acute withdrawal after chronic drug use, noradrenergic signaling tends to be elevated, consistent with the observation that norepinephrine lowering drugs such as clonidine reduce withdrawal symptoms. Since psychological stress can promote relapse of drug seeking in susceptible individuals and stress produces elevated norepinephrine release, this suggests that these drugs may be suppressing noradrenergic signaling during chronic use or instead elevating it only in reward circuits of the brain. If elevated noradrenergic signaling is an etiological factor in the abuse of a broad range of substances, then chronic use of pharmacological agents that reduce noradrenergic signaling, such as clonidine, guanfacine, lofexidine, propranolol, or prazosin, may help prevent or treat drug abuse in general.

Keywords: clonidine; desipramine; guanfacine; hypertension; lofexidine; psychological stress; yohimbine.

Publication types

  • Review