Researchers Observe Similarities Between Nicotine and Opiate Addiction
> 2/14/2008 12:43:20 PM

Smoking may be more socially acceptable than hard drug use, but research has indicated that nicotine addiction may in some ways resemble dependence on heroin and other opiates. In a new study, which was published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Chicago Medical Center found similarities between the biological mechanisms underlying nicotine addiction and those in opiate addiction.

The study examined how nicotine and opiates affect the release of dopamine within the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain very heavily involved in the addiction process. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is released in response to pleasurable or rewarding experiences, such as eating, having sex, and, in some instances, using drugs. Once released, dopamine creates a recurring desire, signaling the brain to continue seeking those sensations. The researchers studied dopamine activity within rat brain tissue and observed that the effect of opiates on dopamine signaling within one specific section of the nucleus accumbens was nearly identical to the response created by nicotine.

Nicotine differs from opiates in many ways, but the mechanism underlying addiction is similar for both. In a press release, head researcher Dr. Daniel McGehee discussed the study's implications about cigarettes and addiction:

"It also demonstrates the seriousness of tobacco addiction, equating its grip on the individual to that of heroin. It reinforces the fact that these addictions are very physiological in nature and that breaking away from the habit is certainly more than just mind over matter."

Nicotine addiction can be debilitating, and research has shown that there is an association between smoking and illicit drug use. The 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that among teenagers aged 12 through 17, the rate of current illicit drug use was nearly 9 times higher among teens who smoked than among teens who did not smoke. Dr. McGehee and his colleagues hope their study will lead to the development of new forms of treatment for patients addicted to more than one substance. Overcoming addiction can be an extremely difficult process, but with appropriate treatments, personal support and, most importantly, the desire to quit, it is not impossible.

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