5 August 2009

Nicotine improves brain function in schizophrenics

Cosmos Online
Nicotine enhances attention and memory in schizophrenics, says a study that supports new treatments which could relieve symptoms and prevent smoking-related deaths.

Smoking itself is incredibly harmful and researchers hope that new treatments based on nicotine could help schizophrenics give cigarettes the boot. Credit: iStockphoto

OXFORD, U.K.: Nicotine enhances attention and memory in schizophrenics, says a study that supports the development of new treatments which could relieve symptoms and prevent smoking-related deaths.

A strong link between schizophrenia and smoking – with over three times as many schizophrenics smoking (70 to 90%) as the population at large – prompted scientists to investigate the link.

Researchers led by Ruth Barr, a psychiatrist at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, set out to find if the nicotine in cigarettes was helping patients to overcome their difficulties with cognitive function, such as planning and memory in social and work settings.

Debilitating symptoms

This is one of the most debilitating and untreated symptoms of schizophrenia. “We know that patients that do better in the long term are those with good cognitive function rather than improvement in any other symptom,” Barr told Cosmos Online.

Prior to this study, any benefits seen with nicotine in people with schizophrenia were thought to be related to overcoming the effects of smoking withdrawal, said Barr, rather than the beneficial effects of nicotine on disease symptoms themselves.

Previously, “we would ask participants to go without a cigarette for 12 hours and then provide a single dose of nicotine and measure cognitive function,” she said.

Reported last week at a British Association of Psychopharmacology meeting, in Oxford, England, this is the first study that has investigated the effects of nicotine in non-smoking patients with schizophrenia.

Clean nicotine

The participants showed improvement in brain function, including less impulsive behaviour and better levels of attention, which are both unrelated to nicotine withdrawal, said Barr.

“We don’t yet know whether these effects persist or not and if those improvements have any impact on daily life, for example, remembering shopping lists or conversations,” she said.

Ultimately, the aim of the research is to reduce the number of schizophrenics who smoke cigarettes.

On average, life expectancy in people with the condition is reduced by 10 years in large part due to cardiovascular disease and smoking-related cancer (see Why nicotine is bad for you, Cosmos Online).

Nicotine itself is unlikely to make an effective treatment, because of its side effects and addictive potential, but drugs known as nicotinic agonists, which target nicotine receptors in the brain, are front runners in the challenge to find an effective replacement.

Mohammed Shoaib, a psychopharmacologist from the University of Newcastle, in the north of England, commented that nicotine-based therapies would offer a significant advancement over current treatments, which do little for the cognitive problems seen with the disease.

“Now, the rationale is to provide a more strategic treatment in the form of a skin patch or nasal spray to avoid the toxins in cigarette smoke. This is the way to go,” he said.


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