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Duke Conference Focuses on Nicotine Research

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

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
diseases.

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
    occurs.
  • 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
    nicotine.
  • 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.
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