Can Low Dose Oral Nicotine Have Beneficial Health Effects? Interview with:

U. H. Winzer-Serhan Ph.D. Associate Professor Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics Texas A&M Health Science Center

Dr. Ursula H. Winzer-Serhan

Ursala. H. Winzer-Serhan Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics
Texas A&M Health Science Center What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: Nicotine is a plant alkaloid that is naturally occurring in the tobacco plant. Smoking delivers nicotine to the brain where it acts as a stimulant. Tobacco and electronic cigarette smoking delivers many other chemicals to the body, which are harmful and can cause cancer.

However, the drug nicotine by itself is relatively benign and poses few health risks for most people. Nicotine acts in the brain on nicotinic receptors, which are ion channels that are widely expressed in the brain. They play an important role in cognitive functions. Research with rodents and in humans has shown that nicotine can enhance learning and memory, and furthermore, can protect neurons during injuries and in the aging brain. With the increasingly older population, it becomes more and more important to delay cognitive decline in the elderly. Right now, there is no drug available that could delay aging of the brain.

In this study, we asked the question if a low dose of nicotine when given over a long period has negative side effects. This is important to know before nicotine can be used for many years as an anti-aging drug in humans. The ultimate goal is to test chronic nicotine during aging to determine if it prevents or delays loss of cognitive function.

In our study, low doses of nicotine were given to mice in drinking water. We found that low dose chronic nicotine increases the number of nicotinic receptors in the brain, which could help with learning and memory. We also saw that mice receiving nicotine reduced their food intake and reduced their body weight. This may help people to lose weight, which is beneficial to overall health. Most importantly, we found no negative side effects. There was no decrease in learning and memory, and no increase in anxiety. In fact, the nicotine treated mice were slightly less anxious. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Nicotine is a drug that can be used to improve human health, when used carefully. Right now, nicotine is used to help with quitting smoking and has a good safety record. Therefore, there is the potential that nicotine can do even more for human health, and perhaps help maintain cognitive functions in the elderly. However, nicotine is an addictive drug and can cause nicotine dependence, especially in adolescent and young adults. During pregnancy, nicotine can cause long-term effect to the offspring, and at high doses it can be lethal. Therefore, we have to be careful how we use the drug and determine which population would most benefit from a long-term treatment with nicotine. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: The next step would be to test whether or not nicotine can indeed improve cognitive function in aging mice. These studies would take many months and have to be carefully designed. Once we find that nicotine has benefits in old mice, then the next step would be to test the drug in humans. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: The older population in the US will increase dramatically in the next decades. In order to reduce the burden on our society that comes with an aging population, we need to find treatments that could prevent or slow the aging process. These treatments must be affordable and have little or no side effects. Nicotine might be a drug that fulfills both criteria, and therefore, more research needs to be done to find out for sure if its works as well in humans as it does in mice. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


Full open access research for “Evaluation of Chronic Oral Nicotine Treatment in Food Consumption, Body Weight and [125I] Epibatidine Binding in Adult Mice” by Pei-San Huang, Louise C. Abbott and Ursula H Winzer-Serhan in Open Access Journal of Toxicology. Published online September 2016 doi:not available

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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Last Updated on September 27, 2016 by Marie Benz MD FAAD