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Studies identify DNA regions linked to nicotine dependence

Americans are bombarded with antismoking messages, yet at least 65 million of us continue to light up. Genetic factors play an important role in this continuing addiction to cigarettes, suggest scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

In two studies in the January 2007 issue of Human Molecular Genetics, the scientists show that certain genetic variations can influence smoking behaviors and contribute to a person's risk for nicotine dependence.

The smoking-related genes identified normally facilitate communication between nerve cells in the brain. One gene in particular, the alpha-5 nicotinic cholinergic receptor (CHRNA5) gene, was a very strong indicator of risk for nicotine dependence. Individuals with a specific variation in the gene seemed to have a two-fold increase of developing nicotine dependence once exposed to cigarette smoking. CHRNA5 is from a class of receptors that plays a role in dopamine pathways in the brain, which are linked to a person's experience of pleasure.

The researchers also identified genes related to gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, another set of proteins vital to nerve cell function. Both GABA and nicotinic receptors had been suspected of involvement in nicotine addiction, but these findings strengthen those suspicions.

The studies also identified a gene not previously known to be involved with nicotine dependence. Called the Neurexin 1 (NRXN1) gene, it helps regulate the balance between excitatory mechanisms those that increase communication between nerve cells and inhibitory mechanisms those that slow firing between nerve cells.

"An imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory activity in the brain may predispose people to addiction, such as alcoholism, drug dependence or nicotine dependence," says Laura Jean Bierut, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and principal investigator of both studies. "The Neurexin gene we've identified is really
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Contact: Jim Dryden
jdryden@wustl.edu
314-286-0110
Washington University School of Medicine
14-Feb-2007


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