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ASU researchers examine how reduced potency of nicotine affects user demand

ASU lab finds that curbing dosage of nicotine heightens likelihood of relapse


"Learn more about nicotine through AAAS award winning research." Illustration published on Wednesday, April 4th, 2018

ASU researchers in the Neurobiology and Behavior Addiction Lab examined the relationship between lower nicotine doses and user relapses in a recent study.

Cassandra Gipson-Reichardt, a researcher at the University, started the lab when she first arrived at ASU in 2015 to examine how to treat drug abuse. She said it is important to study nicotine because its use is so widespread in tobacco products. She said even though there's been a decrease in the popularity of combustible cigarettes, there has been a concurrent increase in e-cigarette use.

“It's a huge societal burden, both in cost and in health issues,” Gipson-Reichardt said. “Nicotine is widely accepted as being the component in cigarettes that maintains use and is reinforcing.” 

Gipson-Reichardt’s lab started examining how users would react to lower amounts of nicotine in existing combustible products following a recent FDA plan that would drastically curb the levels of nicotine available in combustibles to near-zero levels. In the future, products could be 98  percent less potent than they are now.

"The clinical data out there is a little confusing because ... you can see about 80 percent of participants cheated, so they went home and smoked their regular cigarettes after being in the study," she said.

The notice is supposed to curb addiction in users and reduce the number of pathogens, according to a research poster designed by senior psychology major Gabriella Cabrera-Brown.

A research poster allows scientists to display their data and study results graphically, making it more visually appealing and allowing others to process the information in a different way.

The research done by the lab, however, calls the notice into question because researchers found that a sudden reduction in the nicotine availability points to higher rates of relapse.

"What we found was actually the opposite of that, that it drastically increases relapse rates because the individuals have higher elasticity of demand for lower doses of an addictive drug," Cabrera-Brown said.

Cabrera-Brown's research poster won a prize at a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science conference for drawing attention to the matter.

The lab at ASU used an experiment with rats. The rats would pump a lever to administer nicotine into their systems, and rats that were given lower doses pressed the lever more in order to receive more nicotine. The lab is currently in the early stages of clinical testing on humans to reaffirm the preliminary data.

Gregory Powell, a postdoctorate researcher who worked in the lab, said nicotine users will do anything to continue with their addictive habits, even when studied for addiction reduction methods.

"I think there's more questions we could answer, particularly about the effects that reducing nicotine will have on addictive properties," Powell said.

He also said that despite the benefits of reduced nicotine, such as healthier lungs for users, it is not a zero-sum game where reducing levels will necessarily correspond to reduced usage.

The FDA based its notice on a self-funded study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that reduced nicotine levels could lower the rate of adult smokers from 15 percent to 1.4 percent in the future.

Powell said that although the reduced levels of nicotine could help curb addiction in potential new users, the lab at ASU studies the possible effects on current users.

ASU's initial study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the lab has applied for another grant to continue its research.

“It's important to look at neural mechanisms that underlie nicotine and tobacco addiction as well as new pharmacotherapies to try to treat it because relapse rates are very high,” Gipson-Reichardt said.

Moving forward, the lab plans to study different strategies of reducing nicotine content, either in abrupt or gradual manners.

"In our models, you can really systematically evaluate different strategies," she said. "It's really just informative."

Gipson-Reichardt's lab is designed to inform policy on health matters, and she hopes to communicate the findings more broadly. 

"Some people say a gradual strategy won't work because people get used to smoking the lower doses, and so it doesn't actually prevent them from smoking," Gipson-Reichardt said. "Until this becomes a regulatory mandate, it's hard to know what's going to happen."

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