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Smoking affects same 'feel good' brain chemical system as heroin

ng called positron emission tomography, or PET, imaging. This allowed them to literally see activity in the endogenous opioid system when the study participants first smoked a special cigarette with almost no nicotine, and then smoked a regular cigarette. Before, during and after the scans, the participants rated how relaxed, alert, sick and nervous they felt, and how much they were craving tobacco.

The new findings confirm previous animal studies, and add to scientists' previous understanding of how smoking affects the flow of another "feel good" chemical in the brain, called dopamine. Now, the team is studying the interaction of dopamine and opioids in the brains of smokers and non-smokers.

They also hope to look at underlying genetic differences that might explain variations between people in response to nicotine -- and perhaps differences in how easily people become addicted to cigarettes or quit smoking.

"The interaction of tobacco, and especially nicotine, with brain chemistry is a fascinating area that we're just beginning to understand, especially when it comes to correlating neurochemistry with behavior," says study leader Jon-Kar Zubieta, M.D., Ph.D., a U-M psychiatrist and neuroscientist. "Just as with the 'hard' drugs of abuse, such as heroin and cocaine, the phenomena of pleasure, addiction, increased tolerance and craving from tobacco are firmly rooted in neurochemistry."

Adds veteran tobacco researcher and U-M emeritus pharmacology professor Ed Domino, Ph.D., "Nicotine addiction is one of the most destructive forces in human health, and we must increase our comprehension of it in order to defeat it. This study represents a key step toward that goal."

Zubieta's team has spent several years developing and testing a way of using PET imaging to study the endogenous opioid system, and specifically the chemicals called endorphins and enkephalins.

Those are the same chemicals involved in the "runner's high",
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Contact: Kara Gavin
kegavin@umich.edu
734-764-2220
University of Michigan Health System
26-Oct-2004


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