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Smoking linked to brain damage

New research suggests a link between smoking and brain damage, according to a recent report published in the Journal of Neurochemistry

Researchers from the Indian National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) have found that a compound in tobacco known as NNK provokes white blood cells in the central nervous system to attack healthy cells, leading to severe neurological damage.

NNK is a procarinogen, a chemical substance that becomes carcinogenic when it is altered by the metabolic process of the body. Unlike alcohol or drug abuse it does not appear to harm brain cells directly, however the NBRC believe it may cause neuroinflammation, a condition which leads to disorders such as multiple sclerosis.

The team obtained its results by conducting two types of tests, one outside of a living host in a glass and one in laboratory mice. Blot analysis tests showed that the introduction of NNK resulted in a clear increase in proinflammatory signalling proteins, proinflammatory effector proteins and other stress-related proteins.

Increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines, which act as molecular messengers between cells were also detected.

This shows that NNK provokes an exaggerated response from the brain's immune cells, known as microglia. Microglia cells act as 'destroyers' for the brain by attacking damaged or unhealthy cells. However, when provoked by NNK, these cells start to attack healthy brain cells rather than the unhealthy cells they are supposed to attack.

"Our findings prove that NNK can activate microglia significantly which subsequently harms the nerve cells," said Dr Anirban Basu who is co-leading the research with Debapriya Ghosh.

While other harmful side-effects of smoking, such as lung disease, usually derive from tar or smoke this research suggests damage is not confined only to smoking. NNK is present in all forms of tobacco and so can enter the body through chewing.

The study also suggests that second-hand smoking may lead to the same neuroinflammation conditions as NNK is present in the smoke itself.

"This research sheds light on the processes that lead to nerve-cell damage in those who smoke cigarettes or consume tobacco products on a regular basis," said Ghosh.

The research is published in the July issue of the Journal of Neurochemistry.

23rd June 2009


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