A steady stream of nicotine normalises genetically-induced impairments in brain activity associated with schizophrenia, according to new research published this week in Nature Medicine . The discovery could ultimately lead to new non-addictive, nicotine-based treatments for the 51 million people worldwide who suffer from the disease.
Previous studies have estimated that 80 to 90 per cent of people with schizophrenia smoke and most are very heavy smokers, a fact that has long led researchers to suspect that patients are self-medicating.
An international team of scientists, led by Uwe Maskos from the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France set out to explore the underlying causes of hypofrontality, the characteristic reduced synaptic activity in the prefrontal cortex. Hypofrontality is believed to be the cause of many of the signature cognitive features of schizophrenia, including difficulties with concentration, memory, decision-making and verbal comprehension. The team found that in mice with hypofrontality and schizophrenia-like behaviours, nicotine appeared to normalise neural activity by acting on nicotinic receptors in regions of the brain key to healthy cognitive function.
“This defines a completely novel strategy for medication development,” lead author Maskos said. Early stage research is already underway to develop drugs that act on nicotinic receptors.