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Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2016 May;233(10):1963-79. doi: 10.1007/s00213-016-4212-2. Epub 2016 Jan 20.

Mechanisms of the psychostimulant effects of caffeine: implications for substance use disorders.

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Integrative Neurobiology Section, Intramural Research Program, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Triad Technology Building, 333 Cassell Drive, Baltimore, MD, 21224, USA.



The psychostimulant properties of caffeine are reviewed and compared with those of prototypical psychostimulants able to cause substance use disorders (SUD). Caffeine produces psychomotor-activating, reinforcing, and arousing effects, which depend on its ability to disinhibit the brake that endogenous adenosine imposes on the ascending dopamine and arousal systems.


A model that considers the striatal adenosine A2A-dopamine D2 receptor heteromer as a key modulator of dopamine-dependent striatal functions (reward-oriented behavior and learning of stimulus-reward and reward-response associations) is introduced, which should explain most of the psychomotor and reinforcing effects of caffeine.


The model can explain the caffeine-induced rotational behavior in rats with unilateral striatal dopamine denervation and the ability of caffeine to reverse the adipsic-aphagic syndrome in dopamine-deficient rodents. The model can also explain the weaker reinforcing effects and low abuse liability of caffeine, compared with prototypical psychostimulants. Finally, the model can explain the actual major societal dangers of caffeine: the ability of caffeine to potentiate the addictive and toxic effects of drugs of abuse, with the particularly alarming associations of caffeine (as adulterant) with cocaine, amphetamine derivatives, synthetic cathinones, and energy drinks with alcohol, and the higher sensitivity of children and adolescents to the psychostimulant effects of caffeine and its potential to increase vulnerability to SUD.


The striatal A2A-D2 receptor heteromer constitutes an unequivocal main pharmacological target of caffeine and provides the main mechanisms by which caffeine potentiates the acute and long-term effects of prototypical psychostimulants.


Adenosine; Alcohol; Caffeine; Dopamine; Drug abuse; Psychostimulants; Receptor heteromer

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