Researchers say nicotine helps schizophrenics
Schizophrenia traced to a gene
January 20, 1997
Web posted at: 11:15 p.m. EST
From Correspondent Jeff Levine
(CNN) -- For some reason, when Ed Hollister smokes cigarettes it dampens the voices in his head that he says make him crazy.
Hollister suffers from schizophrenia, the brain disorder which causes frightening hallucinations in an estimated four million Americans.
"It was kind of like something inside was yelling about all the bad things that were in this world," says Hollister.
Schizophrenics tend to be heavy smokers, and now doctors think they know why. Apparently, nicotine can imitate an important brain chemical that eases the effect of a defective gene linked to mental illness.
According to Dr. Robert Freedman of the Denver Veterans Administration Medical Center, when schizophrenics smoke, "the voices decrease and they feel much more oriented, and are able to attend to things."
Traced to a gene
A new study of nine families with schizophrenic members
shows that the difficulty many schizophrenics have in sorting out sounds has to do with the gene affected by nicotine.
"We know that the defect is present in 90 percent of schizophrenics," says Dr. Freedman, "and when we trace the inheritance of this defect through the families, the inheritance of schizophrenia seems to follow the same pattern."
It's the first time a schizophrenia symptom has been traced to a specific gene, researchers say.
While scientists haven't found the exact defect
yet, they know it's on the same chromosome where other genes are suspected of involvement in mental illness.
Based on the preliminary link to this so-called receptor gene, nicotine-like drugs could be used to treat schizophrenia.
"We're hoping that now that we understand that this mechanism is involved," Freedman said, "that we can devise treatments that are better in terms of being safer and longer lasting than cigarettes."
Drugs used to combat schizophrenia are useful, but nothing at the moment comes close to a cure, he said.
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