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Study: Smoking may normalize brain function for schizophrenics

CU Boulder researchers study effects of nicotine
Posted at 11:43 AM, Jan 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-27 13:43:10-05

BOULDER, Colo. -- We usually think of smoking as something everyone should avoid, but could it actually be beneficial to some people?

Researchers at CU Boulder's Institute for Behavioral Genetics have found nicotine has a normalizing effect on the brains of schizophrenics. This likely explains why up to 90 percent of schizophrenics are smokers.

“It’s been thought for a long time by scientists that schizophrenics, the reason why they smoke to such a high degree, is they’re self-medicating,” says Jerry Stitzel, a researcher and associate professor at CU Boulder.

The study found a genetic variant that contributes to the risk of schizophrenia leads to something called hypofrontality, which is poor functioning of the frontal part of the brain. That deficit is improved when nicotine is introduced to the system.

“So decision making, planning, ability to control impulses, anything like that -- nicotine has been shown in the study to actually bring this genetic variant deficit back up to normal levels,” said Stitzel.

The hope is this study could lead to the development of non-addictive therapies for schizophrenic patients. This could also have broader implications for other conditions associated with hypofrontality, including ADHD and bipolar disorder. 

The study was published in the journal Nature Medicine.

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