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Italian Study Links Nicotine with Other Addictive Drugs


September 1996

A new study conducted by Italian researchers found that a part of the brain which may be associated with addiction reacts in the same way to nicotine as it does to other addictive drugs (Associated Press, "Addiction Key Links Cocaine with Nicotine," New York Times, July 18, 1996, p. A19; Associated Press, "Neurology: Nicotine, Drugs Get Similar Response," Washington Post, July 22, 1996, p. A2).

The study demonstrates that nicotine, like other addictive drugs, causes dopamine to be released to a region of the brain known as the shell of the nucleus accumbens. The shell connects the amygdala, an area active during emotional experiences, with the core of the nucleus accumbens. Together, the three areas are believed to be central in the addiction process. Dr. Gaetano Di Chiara, a neuroscientist at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia who led the research, said the study puts nicotine in a class with other well-known addictive drugs, including cocaine, morphine and amphetamines. "The ability to stimulate dopamine transmission is a kind of mark, a kind of label which is common to all these drugs and substances," said Di Chiara.

This research "adds new weight to the conclusion that nicotine is indeed addictive," wrote Dr. Leslie L. Iversen of Oxford University. Iversen's comments and the study appeared in the British journal Nature on July 18. "It suggests from a neurobiological level that we're dealing with a real drug and a real brain effect," said Dr. George Koob of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. (F.E. Pontieri, G. Tanda, F. Orzi, G. Di Chiara, "Effects of Nicotine on the Nucleus Accumbens and Similarity to Those of Addictive Drugs," 382 Nature 255, July 18, 1996; L.L. Iversen, "Smoking. . .Harmful to the Brain," 382 Nature 206, July 18, 1996). To obtain a fax of these articles, dial 1-800-570-7747 and indicate document 382255.

Researchers say the results may offer hints on how to break the smoking habit. Since the research provides evidence of a link between cocaine and nicotine addiction, it also suggests that treatments for cocaine addiction, such as rapid detox, might work for nicotine addiction.