Removing a protein from cells located in the brain’s reward center blocks the anxiety-reducing and rewarding effects of nicotine, according to a new animal study in the July 27 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. The findings may help researchers better understand how nicotine affects the brain.
Nicotine works by binding to proteins called nicotinic receptors on the surface of brain cells. In the new study, researchers led by Tresa McGranahan, Stephen Heinemann, PhD, and T. K. Booker, PhD, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, found that removing a specific type of nicotinic receptor from brain cells that produce dopamine — a chemical released in response to reward — makes mice less likely to seek out nicotine. The mice also did not show reductions in anxiety-like behaviors normally seen after nicotine treatment. Smokers commonly report anxiety relief as a key factor in continued smoking or relapse.
“These findings show that the rewarding and anxiety-reducing properties of nicotine, thought to play a key role in the development of tobacco addiction, are related to actions at a single set of brain cells,” said Paul Kenny, PhD, an expert on drug addiction at Scripps Research Institute, who was unaffiliated with the study.