“It’s going to require a huge team of people and a pharmaceutical company to study the protein and develop the drugs, but I think this is the first major stepping stone to making that (improved anti-smoking treatment) happen.”
~Dr. Ryan Hibbs, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Biophysics at the O’Donnell Brain Institute University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
In what has is being called an important scientific breakthrough for the future of anti-smoking treatment, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern have been able to crystallize a protein that could more clearly show how a nicotine addiction develops in the brain.
Why Is This Discovery Important for Anti-Smoking Treatment?
The ability to crystallize the alpha-four-beta-two protein, a nicotinic receptor, is expected to allow researchers to study 3-D structures that can aid in the understanding of how and why nicotine is so addictive. This success comes after decades of failed attempts.
“This is a major advance and solves a long-standing problem…” said Dr. Joseph Takahashi, the Chairman of Neuroscience and Investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Dr. Takahashi also holds the Lloyd B. Sands Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience.
A better understanding of how a nicotine addiction works is important because current methods – smoking cessation drugs, nicotine patches, and chewing gum have all been met with mixed results in the search for an effective way to treat nicotine addiction.
What You Need to Know about Cigarette Smoking and Nicotine Addiction
Nicotine, like other addictive substances such as alcohol or illicit drugs, causes physical dependence and the overwhelming urges that are associated with psychological addiction.
The inhalation of tobacco smoke is the fastest and most powerful way that nicotine enters the body. After each puff, the effects are felt within seven seconds and last up to two hours. This “instant” long-lasting reward is one of the main reasons why nicotine is so addictive.
Smokeless tobacco also contains nicotine, but it is absorbed more slowly that way.
Once inside the body, nicotine binds with receptors within the brain, causing the release of a flood of “pleasurable” neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, serotonin, and especially, dopamine. This artificial surge disrupts normal production, to the point that a person largely – or even completely – loses the ability to produce these neurotransmitters naturally.
In other words, there are only able to experience pleasurable sensations when under the effect of the drug – nicotine. And, whenever a person tries to abstain from smoking, they begin to go through nicotine withdrawal within 2-3 hours:
- Extremely strong cravings – frequently listed as the most negative symptom
- Increased hunger
How Bad Is the Problem of Smoking and Nicotine Addiction in the United States?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Roughly 17% of Americans smoke – approximately 40 MILLION people.
- Smoking rates are highest among young adults, ages 18-24 – 20%.
- Native Americans smoke at a rate that is higher than any other ethnicity – over 29%.
- 43% of people with a GED smoke, compared to just over 5% of those with a graduate degree.
- Under 10% of adults in Utah smoke, while nearly 27% of West Virginians do.
- Smoking is America’s #1 preventable disease.
- Every year, 20% of deaths in America are attributable to smoking-related causes.
- That equates to over 480,000 deaths annually.
- Worldwide, smoking contributes to 6 MILLION deaths a year.
- At the same time, more than 16 MILLION Americans suffer from a disease related to smoking.
Even though researchers caution that any new medications or approaches to treatment are likely years away, it is an encouraging step in the right direction, and a testament to the groundbreaking work on at the University of Texas Southwestern.
Dr. Hibbs said, “Many good research groups have tried to do this and failed. We took a different approach.”