New Research Shows How Nicotine Affects Brain Neurons

Researchers are using a fluorescent protein to track nicotine in neurons.
Donovan Alexander

The World Health Organization estimates that one in every three adults are smokers. To put that in perspective 1.1 billion people smoke tobacco each day, with China being the world’s largest producer and consumer of cigarettes.

Looking into the statistics further, tobacco kills up to half of its users within a lifetime. The addictive culprit of cigarettes is nicotine. Researchers are hard at work to further understand how nicotine affects cells from the inside out, shedding light on nicotine addiction.


The Glowing  Neurons

Every time you take a puff from a cigarette, nicotine races into the brain attaching itself to neurons creating those feelings of happiness and calmness that are associated with smoking a cigarette.


For the uninitiated, the neurons are the cells responsible for receiving sensory input from the external world, for sending motor commands to our muscles, and for transforming and relaying the electrical signals at every step in between. Nicotine alters these “brain-sensors”, very literally changing them from the inside out.

Lead by a team from the California Institute of Technology, the research team has developed a protein sensor that glows when a cell has been affected by nicotine, allowing the researchers to better understand the relationship between nicotine and the brain.

Not much is well understood about the effects of nicotine on the brain in the research community. Using a biosensor, the research team was able to visualize the effects of nicotine as it floods the cells.

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The biosensor is comprised of a special inactivated fluorescent protein. Once the cell interacts with nicotine, the light show begins, triggering a glow-in-the-dark reaction. With this new tool, the research team discovered that nicotine enters into the endoplasmic reticulum within a few seconds of appearing outside a cell.

In short, their observations shed light on how sensitive neurons are to nicotine, with the research implying that the more you smoke the more “ quickly and easily you get a nicotine buzz”.

This, in turn, is nicotine addiction. Using the same “glow in the dark technique”, the team hopes to also shed light on other drugs and their effects on neurons, like antidepressants and opioids.  

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