Good news for people trying to quit smoking, researchers have crystallized a protein that they hope will show what happens in the brain when a person becomes addicted to nicotine.
Scientists expect the findings – published in Nature – to eventually lead to new treatments.
In the United States, 1 in 5 deaths are attributed to smoking, and tobacco use is responsible for nearly 6 million deaths globally every year.
Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Existing drugs, nicotine patches, and chewing gum have had mixed success in helping people to quit using nicotine products.
For decades, scientists have been trying to identify the 3-D structure of a protein known as the alpha-4-beta-2 (α4β2) nicotinic receptor.
Until now, there has been no way to study nicotine’s effects on the brain, and how it becomes addictive, at the atomic level.
The current breakthrough should lead to a new understanding of the molecular effects of nicotine.
The α4β2 nicotinic receptor is located on nerve cells in the brain. When a person smokes a cigarette or chews tobacco, the nicotine binds to this receptor. This opens a pathway for ions to enter the cell.
There are cognitive benefits, including an enhancement of memory and focus, but it is also very addictive.