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

a pleasurable sensation brought on by strenuous exercise. But they're also important to blocking the flow of painful signals in the brain, and the U-M team has used the PET method to study how opioid levels change in response to pain, and how that response is affected by variations in hormone levels and genetic makeup.

The U-M team's PET scan method doesn't show the flow of opioids directly, but rather the status of tiny receptors on the surface of brain cells. These receptors, called mu-opioid receptors, act like locks that can only be opened when opioid molecules -- either made by the brain or introduced from outside -- bind to them. Morphine, heroin and some anesthetics produce their respective effects by binding to these receptors, and the drug-overdose treatment called Narcan blocks them.

The lower the level of natural opioids around, the more receptors there are available to other opioids -- such as a special molecule developed by the U-M team. It's made of a short-lived radioactive carbon atom attached to a molecule of carfentanil, a morphine-like drug known to bind only to mu-opioid receptors. Using the PET scanner, the team can detect how much carfentanil is binding, and by extension how much natural opioid is flowing in that area.

In order to study the effect of nicotine on the opioid system, the team had to find a way to perform their study in the U-M PET scanner despite the strict no-smoking policy of the U-M's Hospitals and Health Centers. They also had to simulate every aspect of smoking except the nicotine, in order to control for all the other chemicals in tobacco smoke and sensory aspects of cigarette smoking.

So, they rigged up a system that allowed a person to smoke a cigarette while lying in the PET scanner having his or her brain scanned, and collected the smoke to vent it to the outdoors. They obtained special cigarettes from the Phillip Morris Research Center in Richmond, VA that had been treated to remove nea
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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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