Scientists at Brown University have found that nicotine is not only addictive, but it also has the ability to interfere with several cellular interactions in the body.
The researchers say that their findings may be helpful in developing better treatments for various diseases, considering that pharmaceutical companies rely on basic research to identify new cellular interactions that can serve as targets for potential new drugs.
Professor Edward Hawrot and his graduate students William Brucker and Joao Paulo set out to provide a more basic understanding of how nicotine affects the process of cell communication through the mammalian nervous system.
They looked specifically at the alpha-7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in mouse brain tissue, which is very similar to a receptor that exists in humans.
The researchers said that 55 proteins were found to interact with the alpha-7 nicotinic receptor, and that those connections were previously unknown.
"This is called a "nicotinic" receptor and we think of it as interacting with nicotine, but it likely has multiple functions in the brain," Hawrot said.
"And in various, specific regions of the brain this same alpha-7 receptor may interact with different proteins inside neurons to do different things," he added.
He revealed that one in particular, the G alpha protein, was among the most unexpected proteins to be identified in the study, as it is usually associated with a completely different class of receptors.
The researcher says that the importance of this finding can be understood from the fact that G alpha proteins are involved in many different biochemical and signaling processes throughout the brain and the rest of the body.
According to him, 40 percent of all G alpha proteins all currently used therapeutic drugs target a member of the large GPCR family of receptors.
Based on their observations, the researchers came to the conclusion that the alpha-7 receptors have a much broader role in the body than previously suspected, and that the newly identified associated proteins could also be affected when nicotine binds to the alpha-7 receptor.
Hawrot believes that his team's work may lead to the development of new treatments to combat smoking addiction.
He even says that the new findings may have future implications for diseases like schizophrenia, as recent studies have suggested that some cases of this condition are linked with deletions where a block of genes, including the gene for the alpha-7 receptor, is missing.
For their research, Hawrot and his colleagues studied mice genetically engineered to lack the alpha-7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, and compared them with normal mice.
The findings of the study have been published in the Journal of Proteome Research.