NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 14, 2006

Physicians have long recognized that a disproportionate number of individuals with mental illnesses smoke, says Bridget M. Keuhn of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Scientists are beginning to understand the underlying causes of this discrepancy and their findings are pointing to potential new treatments for both mental illness and smoking cessation.

The results of several studies suggest that nicotine remediates some of the cognitive deficits associated with certain mental illnesses, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), Alzheimer disease and schizophrenia. Consider:

  • A study of 50 smokers, half with schizophrenia and half without, found that smoking enhances attention and working memory in the smokers with schizophrenia but not in the controls.
  • In patients with schizophrenia smoking may actually help to normalize the expression of some genes, according to a recent study by researchers from the University of Colorado.
  • Jean King, associate director of the department of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, hypothesized that nicotine's activation of the temporal cortex may enhance the flow of information between brain regions, and activation in the auditory processing; both actions might help alleviate symptoms of ADHD.

Many scientists are exploring drugs that target the nicotine receptors but lack the drawbacks of nicotine itself, says Keuhn. "If we can get these treatments into more widespread use, we could make a big dent in the public health impact of smoking (in this population)," says Tony George, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Source: Bridget M. Kuehn, "Link Between Smoking and Mental Illness May Lead to Treatments," Journal of the American Medical Association, February 1, 2006.

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