Everyone knows that tobacco products are bad for your health, and even new e-cigarettes can have harmful toxins. However, according to research at Texas A&M, nicotine itself — when given independently from tobacco — could help protect the brain as it ages, and even prevent Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
Ursula Winzer-Serhan, PhD, associate professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine, and her colleagues have found that nicotine ‘s ability to be neuroprotective may be partly due to its well-known ability to suppress appetite. Their research is published in the Toxicology Journal of Open Access.
Using animal models, Winzer-Serhan and her collaborators added nicotine to the drinking water of the animal. There were three different groups that received nicotine at three different concentrations (low , medium and high) corresponding to occasional, low and medium smokers, respectively, except for the control group that did not receive nicotine.
The two groups that received nicotine at low and medium doses did not show any levels of the drug in their blood and did not experience any changes in the intake of food, body weight, or number of receptors in the brain where nicotine acts. On the other hand, the group with the highest concentration of nicotine ate less, gained less weight, and had more receptors, indicating that at higher doses, the drug enters the brain where it can have an impact on its behaviour. However, even at high doses, it did not seem to have worrying behavioral side effects, such as making people more anxious about what the researchers were concerned could happen.
“Some people say that nicotine reduces anxiety, which is why people smoke, but others say it increases anxiety,” Winzer-Serhan said. “The last thing you’d want in a drug that is given chronically would be a negative behavioral change. Luckily, we didn’t find any evidence of anxiety: only two measures showed any effect, even with high levels of nicotine, and if anything, nicotine made animal models less anxious.”
The next step is to test the potential anti-aging effects of nicotine using aging animal models. Although early results indicate that nicotine can keep older individuals from gaining weight as the control group does, Winzer-Serhan has not yet determined whether this lower body mass index translates into less brain degeneration. It is also unclear whether the effects of nicotine are related only to its ability to suppress appetite, or whether more mechanisms are in place at work.
Because so many unknowns remain, Winzer-Serhan urges caution. “I want to make it very clear that we are not encouraging people to smoke,” she said. “Even if these were not very preliminary results, smoking results in so many health problems that any possible benefit of nicotine would be more than cancelled. However, smoking is only one possible route of drug use, and our work shows that we should not write off nicotine completely.”
Still, Winzer-Serhan warns people not to buy nicotine-containing products. “Although the results are intriguing, we would need large-scale clinical trials before suggesting that anyone changes their behavior,” she said. “At the end of the day, we have not shown that this addictive drug is safe — and certainly not during childhood or adolescence — or that the benefits outweigh the potential risks.”
On the other hand, here are the most common side effects of nicotine and smoking on the brain.
Increased risk of dementia
Smokers also have an increased risk of dementia, a condition that can affect memory , thinking skills, language skills, judgment, and behavior. It may also cause changes in personality.
A 2015 research reviewTrusted Source looked at 37 studies comparing smokers and non-smokers and found that smokers were 30 % more likely to develop dementia. The review also found that quitting smoking reduces the risk of dementia for non-smokers.
Higher risk of stroke
Smokers are more likely to have a stroke than non-smokers. According to the CDCTrusted Source, smoking increases the risk of strokes by two to four times in both men and women. This risk increases if you smoke a larger number of cigarettes.
Loss of brain volume
According to the 2017 studyTrusted Source, the longer you smoke, the higher your risk of higher age-related brain volume loss.
Researchers have found that smoking negatively affects the structural integrity of subcortical brain regions. They also found that smokers, compared to non-smokers, had higher levels of age-related brain volume loss in several areas of the brain.
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