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Nicotine And Schizophrenia: How Smoking Normalizes Genetically-Induced Brain Impairments

By Christie Abagon , Jan 24, 2017 02:23 PM EST
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An international team of scientists wanted to explore the underlying causes of "hypofrontality" - a reduction of neuronal firing in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Hypofrontality is said to be the root cause of many of the signature cognitive problems experienced by people with schizophrenia.

Experts noticed that patients with schizophrenia often use smoking as a form of self-medication to alleviate the deficit symptoms caused by their disorder or to combat the serious side effects of their treatment, such as lethargy or lack of motivation, Business Standard reported. This new study could lead to new non-addictive, nicotine-based treatments for some of the 51 million people worldwide who suffer from the disease.

When Nicotine Was Given To Mice, Their Sluggish Brain Activity Increased

Uwe Maskos from Integrative Neurobiology of Cholinergic Systems Unit or Institut Pasteur and lead author of the study said that nicotine may have a direct impact on the restoration of the brain's normal activity in people suffering from psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. The scientists found that when nicotine was given to mice with schizophrenic characteristics every day, their sluggish brain activity increased within two days and within a week, it was normalized.

News Medical reported that about 80 to 90 percent of schizophrenia patients smoke and most are very heavy smokers, a fact that has long led researchers to suspect they are self-medicating. Maskos and his team wanted to answer this question - Does a variant in the CHRNA5 gene lead to hypofrontality, and if so, how? And does nicotine somehow interrupt this effect?

Gene Variant CHRNA5 Likely Plays A Role In Schizophrenia

They used mice with the CHRNA5 gene variant and used state-of-the-art brain imaging technologies to see if they had hypofrontality. They then conducted behavioral tests to check if the mice shared key characteristics of schizophrenics, like being unable to suppress a startle response and being averse to social interaction. The results validated that the gene variant likely plays a role in schizophrenia by causing hypofrontality

Maskos said that their study "defines a completely novel strategy for medication development." The research team concluded that identifying behavioral deficits linked with this mutation can be used for diagnostic or predictive work in schizophrenia.

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