Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Nicotine Makes Brain Tell Body: More, Fast Mechanism Activated by Smoking Is Located

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Nicotine Makes Brain Tell Body: More, Fast Mechanism Activated by Smoking Is Located

Article excerpt

Tiny amounts of nicotine are able to turn on a switch in the brain that tells the body "that was good, do it again." For a smoker, the message is: Light up another cigarette.

Researchers at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York have located the cellular mechanism in the brain that is activated by nicotine. The discovery gives new insight into how the tobacco chemical exerts such a powerful influence on the mood, thinking, alertness and addiction of smokers.

Lorna W. Role, senior author of a study published today in the journal Science, said nicotine does its work by speeding up and intensifying the flow of glutamate, a neurotransmitter chemical that is a key signal carrier within the brain.

The effect of this faster flow, said Role, "is like turning up the volume on a radio. It increases the signal. This study gives a better molecular understanding as to why nicotine is such a stimulant."

Daniel S. McGehee, first author in the study, said the discovery was the initial step toward finding a drug that blocks nicotine's addictive effects and helps smokers kick the habit.

Using chicken brain cells kept alive in test tubes, the researchers exposed neurons to extremely small amounts of nicotine and then observed the effects on synaptic transmission, the sending of signals across nerve connections.

McGehee said nicotine was concentrated at what would be a typical level in a smoker's bloodstream. But even this minute amount of nicotine, he said, caused a dramatic increase in the firing rate of synaptic signals flashing through the brain tissue.

The researchers said the molecular findings were consistent with studies on the personality effects of nicotine. Those studies showed that the tobacco chemical, in some people, can increase alertness, alter mood and sharpen short-term memory.

McGehee said the nicotine effects were found in the so-called limbic brain, a key part of the brain that includes "a reward system" that encourages some behavior by stimulating neurotransmitter flow. …

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