Nicotine may improve the symptoms of depression in people who do not smoke, Duke University Medical Center scientists have discovered.
The finding does not mean that people with depression should smoke or even start using a nicotine patch, the researchers caution. They say that smoking remains the No. 1 preventable cause of death and disability in the United States, and that the addictive hazards of tobacco far outweigh the potential benefits of nicotine in depression.
But the finding suggests that it may be possible to manipulate nicotine’s effects to safely reap its potential medical benefits, according to the researchers. As an example of the drug’s potential, they said, pharmaceutical companies already are developing compounds for treating other brain disorders by mimicking the beneficial properties of nicotine while avoiding its addictive nature.
“Our study also provides evidence that smokers may indeed smoke, in part, to improve their mood — a notion that has been quite controversial in the field,” he said.
Scientists have established that people prone to depression are twice as likely to be smokers, and are less likely to succeed in quitting smoking after taking up the habit, according to McClernon. The Duke study explored the theories behind the higher smoking rates among people experiencing depression.
“Smokers may be more prone to depression than nonsmokers,” said Edward Levin, Ph.D., a professor of biological psychiatry and researcher at the Duke center, who was senior investigator in the current study. “Or, people with depression may be self-medicating by smoking, albeit in a deadly way.”