Brain Neuron Is Linked to Nicotine Addiction

By Paul Gaita 11/26/14

A neuron in the brain triggered by nicotine withdrawal may provide scientists with answers as to why people become addicted to cigarettes.

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According to a new study, a neuron in the brain that is triggered by nicotine withdrawal may provide scientists with the key to understanding why individuals become addicted to cigarettes and other drugs, as well as a neurological means of ending the addiction.

The study, conducted by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is the end result of research that began five years ago in conjunction with a staff scientist at the University of Toronto. The team discovered a neuron in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, located just below the center. The VTA is responsible for producing dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the reward system that produces a sensation of pleasure. The neuron, which produced a peptide called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), was previously believed to be non-existent in the VTA.

The new research sought to discover what role these neurons play in nicotine addiction by studying brain samples from mice and rats that had a nicotine dependence equivalent to a human who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, as well as brain samples from humans. The team discovered that the CRF-producing neurons in the VTA were activated during a period of withdrawal, which underscored the idea of a connection between the reward and stress systems.

The paradoxical connection could be viewed as a “motivational system” in which the activation of the CRF-producing neurons not only keeps a person smoking by producing dopamine, but also prevents them from quitting by increasing stress levels. Senior study author Oliver George of Scripps Research commented on the ultimate goal of the study findings by saying, “If we can find a way to target those neurons in humans, maybe we can reduce the ‘high’ produced by the drug and reduce the withdrawal symptoms."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.