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Nicotine: A Pathway to Weight-Loss Without the Cigarette

Date Posted: September 30, 2011

A new study conducted by a team of scientists at Yale School of Medicine may lead the way for the discovery of new nicotine-based, weight-loss drugs, without the harm of cigarette smoke. While smokers often blame increased appetite and weight-gain as major problems of smoking cessation, the reasons for loss of appetite and ultimately weight while smoking have not traditionally been well understood by the medical community.

Smoking, and in particular the nicotine in tobacco smoke, is an appetite suppressant. Known for centuries, this can be traced back to indigenous cultures in America in the pre-Columbus era. Tobacco companies caught on by the 1920’s and began targeting women with the lure that smoking would make them thinner.

A study published in the Journal of Physiology & Behavior in July 2011, is one of many to state that the inevitable weight-gain upon quitting smoking is a major barrier in getting people to stop smoking.  However, recent studies actually suggest that it may be possible to get the appetite suppressing benefits of smoking without the cigarette and its associated health risks.

A study led by Dr. Marina Picciotto, a professor of neurobiology and pharmacology at Yale School of Medicine, shows that nicotine could lead to the discovery of new weight –loss drugs. Scientists discovered that low doses of nicotine or cystisine, a drug that binds to nicotine receptors, reduced body fat in mice by 15% to 20% and food intake by up to 50%. The researchers also found that these receptors are independent from those known to trigger tobacco cravings in smokers.

Researchers found that nicotine or cystisine targeted a brain pathway involved in the regulation of appetite called the hypothalamic melanocortin system. The nicotine drugs worked by activating receptors located on pro-opiomelanocortin or POMC cells, which are a subset of neurons in the hypothalamus. Research ultimately demonstrated that drugs that target the POMC pathway could limit the weight gain that followed when quitting smoking.

The effects of such drugs, as well as their potential side effects are still unknown on humans. “Whether it works for weight loss in humans hasn’t been studied,” Dr. Marina Picciotto said in a telephone interview. “It does work in mice.”

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