Volume 96, Issue 64
Thursday, January 23, 2003

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Cigarettes good for the brain?
Still cause plethora of deadly cancer

By Paolo Zinatelli
Gazette Staff

It turns out that smoking may actually be beneficial for you in your old age – that is if the lung cancer and heart disease don't kill you first.

Researchers from the University of Manitoba recently released a study in the journal Neurochemical Research, which suggests that large doses of nicotine may help to protect the brain from Alzheimer's disease.

Dan Sitar, one of the researchers and a professor in the pharmacology department at U of M, said the study focussed on human nerve cell tissue, and revealed nicotine use may aid in the prevention of protein plagues in the brain, which have been linked to Alzheimer's.

"We used pure chemical nicotine in our studies," Sitar said, adding research in this area is controversial because of the fact that smokers usually end up dying from other illnesses.

The research team spent five years on the project, and is comprised of doctors from Germany, along with graduate students and technicians, Sitar said.

"Nicotine plays a role in [mental activity]," he explained, adding researchers examined the drug's effect on neurotoxicity in the brain.

They discovered that nicotine prevented the formation of amyloid beta peptide – a protein linked to Alzheimer's, Sitar said.

"The protective effects of nicotine have been known for some time," said Andrew Kertesz, a professor of clinical neurological sciences at Western, adding the drug can improve some cognition and attention in normal individuals.

However, there is no convincing evidence that heavy doses of nicotine will help, Kertesz explained, adding the benefits are only short-term.

"The Alzheimer's Society supports and encourages ongoing clinical research to identify treatments for Alzheimer's disease and related dementia," said Mary Ellen Parker, executive director of the Alzheimer's Society of London and Middlesex.

At the same time, the Society is in no way advocating smoking, she stated. "The dangers of smoking are clear," Parker said.

More controlled studies are needed to prove or disprove the benefits of nicotine, and the Society supports more research in this area, Parker said.

"What companies are doing is making derivatives of nicotine that may not have other [side-effects] on the body," Sitar said.

They will continue to look at brain tissue under a microscope, he said, but added this can only be done post-mortem.

"Our hope is that if the findings are positive, this might shed more light on Alzheimer's disease and translate into possible new drug treatments in the future," Parker said.


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