Almost 90 percent of people suffering from schizophrenia smoke cigarettes. That’s a smoking rate about six times higher than the general population. Scientists have long assumed that this is an example of self-medication.
Now a study in the journal Nature Medicine describes why those with schizophrenia smoke so much, and suggests that nicotine could be used to treat schizophrenia. The authors hope that in the future effective nicotine-based treatments will be available.
A genetic mutation called CHRNA5 is associated with cognitive problems in many schizophrenic patients. The new study shows how nicotine helps normalize brain activity in these people.
The researchers used a mouse model to show how nicotine affects cells in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, according to the study press release. They showed how nicotine “has a direct impact on the restoration of normal activity in nerve cells (neurons) involved in psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.”
The video above shows normal neuron activity in the prefrontal cortex of a control mouse from the study (left), and neuron activity in a mouse with the CHRNA5 mutation (right).
“These experimental results argue strongly that nicotine, or nicotinic agonists, could normalize [prefrontal cortex] activity and thus reduce some of the cognitive deficits found in humans with neuropsychiatric disorders,” says the paper.
The research team was led by Uwe Maskos of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and included scientists from France, the United States, Germany, and Russia.
Research has long shown that nicotine has cognitive benefits for some users. Smokers are known to suffer less often than non-smokers from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and that is likely to be from the nicotine in tobacco. And researchers are testing nicotine’s potential for treating people with ADHD and other cognitive issues.