Humans and mice have some similar enough brain structures that make this a relevant advance in giving people increased control to stop the scourge of nicotine addiction.
Brain researchers have pinpointed a small group of brain cells that are especially responsive to nicotine, and which might be the main culprits in driving addiction to the substance.
By tweaking these neurons in mouse brains, scientists were able to curb nicotine addiction in the animals. Not only have their results solved an important piece of the nicotine addiction puzzle, but they could also lead us towards new treatments for the problem.
Nicotine is one of humanity’s most popular drugs – it’s considered to be the third most addictive substance we know. And because it holds such a sway on our brains, it’s extremely difficult to quit.
According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is a leading cause of preventable death, with about 1,300 people in the US dying every day due to cigarette smoking or smoke exposure.
Which is why a team led by researchers from The Rockefeller University has been digging around brain chemistry to identify potential new drug targets that could help curb the addiction.
They focussed on two small brain regions located in the midbrain – the evolutionary older part of vertebrate brains, and one of the many brain features we share with mice.
These two interconnected regions – the medial habenula and the interpeduncular nucleus (IPN) – are known to be involved in drug dependence, and also contain the receptors that nicotine binds to once it enters the bloodstream and crosses into the brain.
Even though so far we only have seen these results in mice, we do share similar brain structures with these animals, so the researchers are confident we can learn something about human addiction here.
“What all of this tells us is that the habenula-IPN pathway is important for smoking in humans,” says Ibanez-Tallon.
Now that the researchers know where to look, they’ll be further investigating how to manipulate the Amigo1 neurons in order to discover new ways to target nicotine addiction.
The study has been published in PNAS.