Saturday, June 30, 2012

Nicotine Addiction Genetics

credit: SuperFantastic on Flickr
Wonder why some smokers instantly get hooked on cigarettes while others can just have a cigarette now and then? The latest research has suggested that genetics plays at least some role in nicotine addiction, and researchers have identified which individual genes seem to be involved. While the genetic link to addiction is certainly not a new subject, there remains plenty left to uncover to answer questions such as: to what extent genes are responsible for addiction and its consequences; and what underlying genetic mechanisms specifically cause the vulnerability?

The Latest Research on Nicotine Addiction and Genetics

Researchers from Germany, France and Russia have contributed to important findings on this topic. Two years ago, researchers discovered a specific gene cluster (3 genes) involved with posing a risk factor for nicotine dependence. Recent studies revealed that a variation in one or more of the genes in that cluster seem to be present in a significant percentage of smokers. 

For example, if the gene alpha5 (one of the 3) is mutated, they found that an individual is more likely to become addicted to nicotine and more prone to developing lung cancer! Moreover, it is a balance of activity among these genes within the cluster that appears to be the key in making individuals vulnerable to nicotine dependence. (Silke Frahm et al. Aversion to Nicotine Is Regulated by the Balanced Activity of b4 and a5 Nicotinic Receptor Subunits in the Medial Habenula. Neuron, May,12, 2011, Vol. 70, Issue 3, pp: 522-535.)

Potential Impact of Research on Nicotine Addiction and Genetics 

What is the significance of this ongoing research into the genetic influence on nicotine addiction? Considering the World Health Organization estimate that tobacco use causes at least five million deaths a year across the globe, any and all insights into the contributing factors to this epidemic may be helpful in prevention. In spite of broad education campaigns in the USA targeting smoking prevention and the greater awareness today of great health risks from nicotine use, each day an estimated 1,000 American youth become daily smokers according to the Center For Disease Control.

Imagine if there were a genetic screening for young people that determined their genetic variations such as the aforementioned types linked to an inclination towards nicotine addiction and lung cancer. Empowering individuals with this unique information about their own specific likelihood of developing addiction and disease based on this lifestyle choice could in fact be just the deterrent that keeps a person from gambling with picking up that first cigarette. 

Consider the impact if genetic screenings became affordable and integrated into the healthcare system so that a pediatrician were able to educate their young patients not only about general risks of smoking but inform them of their unique genetic risk potential, directly stating “you are particularly at risk for addiction and lung cancer if you try smoking.”

Learning one’s own very specific genetic propensity towards addiction and cancer might in fact break through some of the denial that is otherwise reflected by the widespread use of nicotine in spite of the general knowledge of potential health risks. It could help to reduce the fearless “it won’t happen to me” common attitude among youth who try that first cigarette. Hence the potential application of continued research on the genetic component of nicotine addiction may hold the key to prevention and decreasing the incredible amount of smokers and nicotine-related deaths locally and worldwide.

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