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Schizophrenia Treatment: Nicotine May Normalize Genetically-Induced Brain Impairments

Update Date: Jan 26, 2017 06:35 PM EST

There had been studies in the past on the link between smoking and schizophrenia, with some noting that people with the mental health issue are more likely to smoke. A new study may have solved the puzzle as the researchers found that a steady stream of nicotine normalizes genetically-induced impairments in the brain of people with schizophrenia.

In a new study published in the journal Nature Medicine, a team of international researchers has found that schizophrenia patients are more likely to smoke because they might be self-medicating without them realizing it.

This new finding may pave the way for new treatment options for the psychiatric condition. Moreover, the researchers see their work in the future as a stepping stone toward the development of new non-addictive, nicotine-based treatments for about 51 million people across the globe who suffer from schizophrenia. Also, it could lead to potential therapies for other psychiatric conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder and others.

"Our study provides compelling biological evidence that a specific genetic variant contributes to risk for schizophrenia, defines the mechanism responsible for the effect and validates that nicotine improves that deficit," Jerry Stitzel, co-author of the study, said in a press release by the University of Colorado Boulder.


The root of the researchers' experiment was something called hypofrontality, which is characterized by a decreased activity in the brain's prefrontal cortex that may lead to cognitive issues with decision-making and memory.

Using brain imaging technologies, the team found that mice with the CHRNA5 gene variant displayed symptoms of hypofrontality, which is commonly thought to be a prominent cause of many schizophrenia symptoms and associated with other psychiatric disorders.

By studying mice, the researchers showed that CHRNA5 genetic mutation is also linked to the decreased function of the frontal lobe. Nicotine, on the other hand, reverses the problem, at least in laboratory mice, since the chemical acts on receptors in regions of the brain key to healthy cognitive function.

Since hypofrontality has also been associated with other psychiatric conditions and addiction, the research could pave the way for drug development in the mental health field.

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