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The Neurobiology of Nicotine Addiction: An Overview

December 8, 2008: The Role of Nicotine Addiction in Tobacco Use

Timothy P. Condon, Ph.D., Deputy Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

Key messages:

  • Nicotine alters the structure of the nervous system as well as bodily functions such as modulation of neurotransmitters, hormones and brain metabolic and electrical activity.
  • Nicotine addiction is a brain disease expressed as a compulsive behavior. Becoming addicted and recovering from it depend on behavior as well as the social context.
  • There is a large genetic contribution to drug abuse and addiction and the nature of this contribution is very complex.
  • Addiction is a developmental disease that starts in childhood and adolescence when the brain is still developing. It is known now that the brain isn't fully developed until about age 22, and the area of the brain that controls judgment and weighing risk is the last to develop.
  • The adolescent brain responds to drugs differently than the adult brain, and experiments with rats have found that young animals find lower doses of nicotine more rewarding and high doses less aversive than in mature rats.
  • The combination of the enhanced rewarding effects and diminished symptoms of withdrawal may contribute to the rapid development of nicotine use during adolescence.
  • Exposure to drugs during adolescence could have profound effects on brain development and brain plasticity and therefore, understanding drug abuse and addiction from a developmental perspective has important implications for their prevention and treatment.
  • Several companies are working on the development of a nicotine vaccine which is currently being tested in rats.
  • Unfortunately, nicotine is not the only bad component of tobacco. Other components within tobacco smoke also have negative health effects. In addition, tobacco use does not just affect the brain but also has negative health implications for every organ in the body.
  • One of the promising areas of research indicates that exercise may reduce the desire to smoke.

Following Dr. Condon's presentation, Jack Henningfield commented that his remarks provided the biological basis for the need for policy change, particularly around increasing the cost of tobacco products and decreasing access to delay onset of tobacco use. The current FDA legislation before Congress would address both cost and access.

RADM Galson asked Dr. Condon to identify what he thinks are the two most promising areas for additional research. Dr. Condon responded that there is a need to know more about the impact of nicotine on developing brains and, related to the success of the American Legacy Foundation's "truth" campaign, determining the factors that stimulate the brain to make a person motivated to change his or her behavior.

Following questions, Dr. Matthew McKenna, Director of CDC's Office on Smoking and Health introduced the morning's panel.

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