Nicotine seems doomed to suffer as a result of its association with smoking. Because it is the most famous constituent of tobacco, it has been accused of causing all the harm of smoking, when in reality it is all about burning tobacco that causes disease and death, except nicotine. Not only is nicotine blamed for health problems that it does not cause — like cancer and emphysema — but the actual health benefits of nicotine are often ignored or even suppressed.
Would you be surprised to learn that the drug most Americans believe causes cancer not only does not cause cancer, but can be a breakthrough treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's? Or can nicotine help unlock the mysteries of schizophrenia, or can it be used to create new weight loss therapies? Or is nicotine being tested as a cure for Alzheimer's disease in a major federally funded clinical trial?
Despite the popularity of nootropic medicines, known as intelligent medicines or study medicines, many people do not know that nicotine improves memory or improves other cognitive functions. Although widely misunderstood by the public and pilloried in the press, researchers recognize the positive effects of nicotine and are actively seeking new ways in which nicotine can help people live better lives.
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 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. Research in Swedish snus users has also shown that nicotine does not have a smoking protective effect.
Could nicotine be also the key to treating this brutal disease effectively after symptoms begin to protect long-term users? Patients with L-dopa have promised animal studies, and nicotine in monkeys seems effective at reducing dyskinesia. However, studies involving nicotine patches have not produced conclusive results for Parkinson's patients. The research continues, hopefully science will identify a way for people with this terrifial condition to benefit from nicotine.
If you wonder if it might help to treat depression, the idea that nicotine may affect dopamine-producing neurons is split. Maryka Quik is a former researcher at Parkinson 's Institute who does not believe that sufficient evidence exists today, while Paul Newhouse, head of Cognitive Medicine University of Vanderbilt, believes that there are real potential. There is not enough evidence at this time. "We have a small , open label pilot study of nicotine increase in older adults with depression, with a strong positive effect," said Newhouse, noting the recent publication of the study."The potential for depression is interesting, we think, but it's not related to dopamine. We think that nicotine alters the activity of a cortical network and reorients the activity of some intrinsic nets in the brain to look more and less inward.
Where true, this might be relevant: brain scans of people with highly effective depression show hyperactivity in ruminating areas of the brain. Depressed brains are often regarded as "inward" rather than healthier brains, which is one reason why the condition involves replaying obsessively past errors and agonizing about the future. Therapy and drugs help to soften the surplus networks, which could potentially be a further tool in the fight against depression, if nicotine can play a part in producing extroverted qualities and in de-enhancing introverted qualities. Much more research is necessary for now.
Nicotine may help people with ADHD.
According to Paul Newhouse, Director of the Center for Cognite Medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, icotine can be as effective as Ritalin, to improve attention in patients with ADHD.
Newhouse conducted numerous studies in Vanderbilt and earlier at the university of Vermont, using nicotine to treat cognitive and neurological disorders. In 2004, Newhouse administrated transdermal-pate nicotine to eight ADHD teenagers and compared results with Ritalin and a placebo in a study under the co-author Alexandra Potter.
"The nicotine management is having significant positive effects on cognitive and behavioral inhibition in young people with ADHD, Newhouse and Potter concluded. At the very least, the scale of the effect is comparable to [the Ritalin]. "Three years later, the results were confirmed in a follow-up study with 15 topics.
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