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A previously dismissed genetic mechanism may contribute to nicotine dependence and withdrawal, new research suggests.
“We, as a field, need to take another look at this mechanism in nicotine addiction.”
Scientists in the lab of Shawn Xu, a professor in the molecular and integrative physiology department at the University of Michigan Medical School, examined withdrawal responses in the millimeter-long roundworms Caenorhabditis elegans, which get hooked on nicotine just like humans.
The researchers identified specific genes and microRNA that play an essential role in how the roundworms develop nicotine dependence and withdrawal responses—clues that may carry over to the mammalian realm.
The study took a fresh look at a previously dismissed biological mechanism. Most research in the field has focused on how proteins called nicotine acetylcholine receptors contribute to dependence.
Xu and his colleagues focused on an earlier step in the genetic coding process and discovered that a series of genes were involved in a process that ultimately increased the production of the nicotine receptor proteins, with microRNAs—a class of small RNA molecules that help fine-tune gene expression—playing a pivotal role.