Schizophrenia, nicotine addiction and the research that could treat them both

Can schizophrenia and nicotine addiction be treated at the same time? 

That’s what  East Tennessee State University researchers hope to find out. 

With the help of a $435,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the Quillen College of Medicine will continue years of research into smoking and people with schizophrenia.

Dr. Russell Brown, a professor at the university’s Department of Biomedical Sciences said research into the topic has been ongoing for more than a decade. This is Brown’s third grant for his research at ETSU. 

He said people with schizophrenia are four times more likely to be heavy cigarette smokers than the general population – that’s about 80 percent of people with the illness.

He said about 1 percent of the population has schizophrenia. 

“Essentially people with schizophrenia use that as a self-medication tool to enhance cognition, to help them focus better,” Brown said. “But we also think it’s more rewarding because the changes in the brain that occur in schizophrenia.” 

He explained that nicotine addiction is connected to the stimulation of the adenosine A(2A) receptor, part of the adenosine system in the brain. He added the same receptor can be targeted to alleviate some behavioral symptoms of schizophrenia.

By studying that target, Brown said he hopes to be able to decrease the brain’s rewarding aspects of nicotine while at the same time treating schizophrenia symptoms.

People diagnosed with schizophrenia are most-commonly prescribed anti-psychotic medication, Brown said, but a host of negative side effects from the medication means patients often don’t maintain their medication as they should.

 “In fact, in a lot of cases (the medications) actually increase smoking behavior,” he said. “So we’re trying to find a treatment that actually could work to both decrease the smoking behavior, which obviously would increase their quality of life, and then also be able to treat the disease itself.”

The development of a new drug is still many years down the road, Brown said — his team’s current research is performed on rodent models, and there is still a long road to an FDA-approved drug on the market. 

He said it’s possible the research will help produce medication to help with those struggling with nicotine addiction, too. 

“Ultimately, if we can discover that, it can lead to the development of drugs, development of treatments of both smoking and schizophrenia,” he said. “It’s kind of hitting two birds with one stone.” 

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