Link Between Nicotine Addiction And Autism

Nicotine Addiction and Autism

Sensation

Rene Anand, associate professor of pharmacology in Ohio State University’s College of Medicine and principal investigator of the research has recently presented this findings on 17-Nov-2008 at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C. Her team of scentists have identified a relationship between two proteins in the brain that has links to both nicotine addiction and autism. The finding has led to speculation that existing drugs used to curb nicotine addiction might serve as the basis for potential therapies to alleviate the symptoms of autism.

The Role of Neurexin-1

The discovery identified a defining role for a protein made by the neurexin-1 gene. It is located in brain cells and assists in connecting neurons as part of the brain’s chemical communication system. The neurexin-1 beta protein’s job is to lure another protein, a specific type of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, to the synapses. The receptor then has a role in helping neurons communicate signals among themselves and to the rest of the body.

Link between Nicotinic Receptors and Autism

Previous research has shown that people with autism have a shortage of these nicotinic receptors in their brains. Meanwhile, scientists also know that people who are addicted to nicotine have too many of these receptors in their brains. . “If we were to use drugs that mimic the actions of nicotine at an early time in human brain development, would we begin to help those and other circuits develop properly and thus significantly mitigate the deficits in autism? This is a novel way of thinking about how we might be able to use drugs to approach autism treatment,” said Anand. “It would not be a complete cure, but right now we know very little and have no drugs that tackle the primary causes of autism.”

The drugs in question are known as cholinergic agents, which interact with the brain to counter nicotine addiction. Anand said the medications could be retailored for use in children in an effort to increase the level of neurexin-1 beta protein in the brains of people with autism.

Importance of the Findings

More neurexin would in turn not only enhance the presence of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, but also a host of other proteins that are important for the proper formation and maturation of synapses. Proper synapse function is critical to the nervous system’s ability to connect to and control other systems of the body.

“Now that these associations have been made, we believe that nicotine in smokers’ brains possibly increases the level of neurexin-1 and, as a consequence, helps bring more receptors to the synapses and makes those circuits highly efficient, reinforcing the addiction,” said Anand.
“In autism, we have the opposite problem. We have a lack of these receptors, and we speculate that neurexin levels are lower. Our research reveals how changes in the functions of neurexin could affect the guidance of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors to their functional destinations in nerve cells, perhaps increasing receptors in tobacco addicts while decreasing them in autistic individuals, thus increasing susceptibility to these devastating neurological disorders.”

Remarks

There are important links between the  nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and autism.   In autism cases, we have a lack of of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors which is crucial in helping neurons communicate signals among themselves and to the rest of the body.   

If we follow the arguments of this findings, in the future, we may have possible drugs that could the increase the level of neurexin-1 beta protein in the brains of people with autism, which in turn increase the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.   This may then improve the situations for people with autism as now the neurons could communicate better to the rest of the body.
However, as Anand had correctly pointed out that “this is a novel way of thinking about how we might be able to use drugs to approach autism treatment,” and “it would not be a complete cure.”   As with any new drugs, it takes a long time to prove it actually works and also to tell about its possible side-effects.   

Nevertheless, this discovery is another success to unveil another layers of the mystery causes of autism.

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