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Nicotine's role in post-smoking weight gain becomes clearer

June 10, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Researchers have uncovered how nicotine works in the brain to keep smokers from putting on pounds.
Researchers have uncovered how nicotine works in the brain to keep smokers… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Some smokers won’t quit because they think they’ll gain weight if they do -- and statistically speaking, they’re probably right. But now that scientists have found nicotine receptors in the brains of mice that appear to influence appetite, there’s hope that researchers could eventually engineer a weight-loss drug that mimics nicotine. It just won't happen anytime soon.

In the new study, scientists from Yale University and the Baylor College of Medicine investigated how nicotine worked in the brains of mice to suppress their appetite. The researchers found that when nicotine binds to a particular receptor in the brain, certain neurons in the hypothalamus, called pro-opiomelanocortin, or POMC, cells, are activated. Mice with this pathway lost weight; those without an "intact" pathway did not. The results were published online Thursday in the journal Science.

Hence, the hope for a medical application:

"These results indicate that medications that specifically target this pathway could alleviate nicotine withdrawal as well as reduce the risk of overeating during smoking cessation," National Institute of Drug Abuse director Dr. Nora D. Volkow said in a news release. "Although more research is warranted, such a highly selective compound might be more effective than drugs that act on more than one type of nicotinic receptor."

But research in mice doesn’t always translate quickly to medications for humans, if at all. So don't bother waiting.

A weight guide booklet from Forever Free, a series for smokers who have recently quit, has some tips for how to manage weight in the months after kicking the nicotine habit. 

One bit of advice from the guide -- and some reassurance:

“The need to have something in your mouth goes away over time. Keep your hands and mouth busy with objects, such as toothpicks or straws. Or you can chew on foods such as carrots, celery, or even sugar-free mints.”

And, if you normally smoke immediately after eating, leave the table. Fast.

RELATED: Weight gain from quitting smoking linked to diabetes.

healthkey@tribune.com

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