Pain, memory problems and nicotine addiction are formidable problems that have quite different consequences. But in terms of what?s happening in the brain that causes people to suffer from each, they share a close connection. And now scientists say one drug might be able to help people with all three of these problems.
Estimates suggest 2 million people in the U.S. suffered from an opioid abuse disorder in 2015 (the most recent year with data available), about 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer?s disease and more than 36 million Americans are currently cigarette smokers (more than half of whom are trying to quit). A drug that helps with all three of these problems has the potential to affect the health of a lot of people in a significant way.
And because the new drug would work differently from ones that are currently available for these problems it (in theory) would be a lot safer for patients and have a lower risk of dangerous side effects, said Ayman K. Hamouda, assistant professor in pharmaceutical sciences and in neuroscience & experimental therapeutics at Texas A&M University.
?We?re not there yet. There is a lot to be done to understand [the pharmacology] of these compounds ? but we?re closer than ever to this goal,? he said.
The current class of drugs that help with nicotine addiction work by targeting brain receptors that react to nicotine in the first place. Varenicline (sold as Chantix) ? the only such drug approved for helping people quit smoking ? essentially replaces the effect of nicotine on these brain receptors, blocking the effect that causes people to keep craving cigarettes. But the problem is that these drugs affect other receptors, too ? not just the ones that are linked to nicotine addiction, Hamouda explained. This has led to some reports of changes in behavior, altered mood and suicidal thinking and sleep problems. And only about 22 percent of smokers who use the drug end up actually quitting cigarettes.
Instead, Hamouda?s team is developing a drug that would actually boost brain activity of the receptors that are linked to memory, pain signals and nicotine addiction.