People are hooked on cigarettes, but researchers hope that nicotine and related compounds will have therapeutic uses.
Nicotine is rightly reviled because of its association with smoking and addiction. But the rogue substance has a wide range of brain effects, which may include some healing properties. Researchers are testing nicotine and related compounds for Alzheimer’s disease , Parkinson ‘s disease, attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other conditions.
Nicotine is a cognitive enhancer
Nicotine appears to be neuroprotective, helping to prevent degenerative brain diseases. And it appears that the same properties that make nicotine a powerful potential weapon against neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease can also improve certain brain functions for anyone who chooses to use it. For example, nicotine temporarily improves working memory and visual attention.
Nicotine as a fat burner
It has long been accepted that nicotine acts as a weight suppressant. Usually, when smokers quit, they gain weight. However, a recent study shows how nicotine affects metabolism by triggering the body to burn certain types of fat cells through a process called thermogenesis.
Thermogenic (“beige”) fat cells are activated to burn by stimulating a certain nicotinic acetylcholine receptor called CHRNA2—the same receptor that regulates nicotine dependence in brain cells — either naturally with acetylcholine or with nicotine, which mimics the effect of acetylcholine on the CHRNA2 receptor.
Nicotine may help treating Parkinson’s Disease
Nicotine binds to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors ( nAChRs) in the brain and other parts of the body and stimulates various effects. This receptor system — a cholinergic system designed to bind to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine — controls muscle contraction, works in the immune system to regulate inflammation, and stimulates the production of other neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, serotonin, glutamate, endorphins, and most famously dopamine.
The dopamine rush in the brain is what makes nicotine addictive when delivered quickly, just like when you smoke a cigarette. It gives the smoker a reward for pleasure, and some people can’t help but come back to that feeling again and again.
But dopamine also does something else: it can prevent or reduce uncontrolled movements such as those experienced by people with Parkinson’s disease. As the disease progresses, the neurons that make dopamine in one part of the brain (the striatum) die. Traditional treatment, called L-dopa (levodopa), ultimately causes another movement disorder: dyskinesia, sudden hand movements, head and torso commonly seen in Parkinson’s patients.
Researchers have known since the 1960s that cigarette smokers have a much lower incidence of Parkinson’s than non-smokers. And research on Swedish snus users has confirmed that the protective effect of nicotine does not depend on smoking.
In addition to protecting long-term users, could nicotine also provide the key to the effective treatment of this brutal disease after symptoms begin? Animal studies have been promising and nicotine appears to be effective in reducing dyskinesia in monkeys in patients already using L-dopa. However, studies using nicotine patches to treat Parkinson’s patients have not produced conclusive results. Research continues, hoping that science can identify a way that nicotine can help those with this terrifying condition.
Nicotine improves reaction time
Multiple studies have shown that nicotine reduces (improves) the time of response when performing experimental tasks. Researchers at the University of London’s Institute of Psychiatry tested 113 smokers and found that smoking a cigarette “under naturalistic conditions improves the smoker’s performance in an IQ-related task.”
In a similar experiment, scientists at the University of Auckland (New Zealand) tested 29 subjects ‘under non-smoking, sham smoking, and low, medium, and high nicotine cigarette conditions,’ and found that nicotine reduced (improved) the time to make a decision, and that sham smoking (through unlit cigarette smoking) increased (worsened) the time to make a decision. The effect was seen as to whether the test subject was a normally heavy or light smoker.
Nicotine improves short-term memory
Research has repeatedly shown that nicotine improves short-term memory. In fact, it is one of the most widely recognized benefits of nicotine. In a typical nicotine / memory study, researchers at the University of Surrey (U.K.) gave 10 smokers and 10 non-smokers either nicotine gum or placebo, and then completed short-term memory tasks at set points for four hours.
“The results suggest that nicotine enhanced memory response time performance … when subjects were tested for information already present in short-term memory (correct positive reactions) but had no effect on the response time when the information was missing from memory (correct negative reactions),” the authors wrote. “It is suggested that nicotine facilitates the processing of stimulation information in short-term memory.”
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