Duke Conference Focuses on Nicotine Research
DURHAM, N.C. - Despite its deserved reputation as a health
hazard, research over the past decade reveals that nicotine may
have some beneficial effects on certain health conditions and
On Oct. 20, scientists will gather at Duke University to
discuss nicotine and nicotine-like drugs as potential
treatments for Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, Tourette's
syndrome, Parkinson's disease, smoking cessation, depression
and pain. Conference presenters also will discuss how people's
response to nicotine differs by gender and age.
"For a long time, nicotine has had a bad reputation,
stemming from the serious health risks of cigarette smoking.
While we know that smoking is bad for people, we have found
that the drug in cigarettes - nicotine - can be medically
useful," said Edward Levin, associate professor of psychiatry
and pharmacology at Duke Medical Center.
Today, the only approved medical use of nicotine is in gum
or a skin patch to help alleviate a smoker's craving for the
drug. In addition to its use as a smoking-cessation aide,
researchers are now looking at other potential health benefits
of nicotine and nicotine-like drugs.
For the past five years, Levin has organized the annual
conference with Duke neuroscientist and nicotine researcher Jed
Rose. Rose is a medical research professor in the department of
psychiatry and chief of the Duke/Veterans Administration
Nicotine Research Laboratory. Levin and Rose will be joined by
more than a dozen nicotine researchers from across the country
as presenters at the day-long conference.
Conference topics include:
- How nicotine affects people differently as they age.
Research has already shown that in fetuses and newborns,
nicotine can damage growing brains. Now, Levin is studying
the effects of nicotine in adolescent rats, whose brains are
still developing, to determine if the same type of damage
- How nicotine affects adults with mild memory loss. "Among
older adults with mild memory loss, nicotine seems to have
the positive effect of delaying nerve degeneration in the
brain," Levin said. He is interested in determining how
seniors' memory and thinking might benefit from
- The results of a preliminary trial of eight patients with
Alzheimer's Disease who were treated with nicotine skin
patches to see if their memory, attentiveness and overall
functioning improved. Over the four-week test period, the
patients improved in one of the three areas measured --
attentiveness. "The results encourage us to look at nicotine
further to see how it could be even more effective, perhaps
when given at a higher dose or in combination with another
drug," Levin said.
- Research on ways to improve the success of people who try
to quit smoking. Researchers are trying to determine why the
nicotine skin patch is not as effective in helping women to
quit smoking as it is in men. The most recent research by
Rose, who co-invented the nicotine skin patch, shows women
are twice as successful in kicking the habit when given
mecamylamine, a nicotine-blocking drug, in addition to the
nicotine skin patch. A combination patch (containing both
nicotine and mecamylamine) is now being tested to obtain U.S.
Food and Drug Administration approval. "Our findings suggest
that by tailoring our smoking-cessation programs for women
with this combination treatment, we may be able to help them
be more successful quitters," Rose said.
- Gender-related differences in nicotine research with male
and female mice. Imad Damaj, Ph.D., of the Medical College of
Virginia, has found that males were more sensitive to
nicotine's analgesic (pain-killing) effects. Why this
difference exists is not clear, but Damaj will discuss how he
is exploring possible links to genetics, hormones, drug
metabolism and other factors.
- Research on the effect of nicotine on schizophrenics.
Sherry Leonard, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and
pharmacology at University of Colorado Health Sciences
Center, will discuss how smoking rates among the mentally
ill, particularly schizophrenics, are very high. Nicotine has
been shown to normalize an auditory sensory deficit found in
schizophrenia. Leonard is investigating possible genetic
reasons for this sensory deficit among schizophrenics.