UC Irvine researchers have identified a new class of compounds that could be used for drugs to treat cognitive disorders that accompany schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and ADHD, according to an article published in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The compounds target receptors in the brain that are activated by nicotine. They impart the beneficial effects of nicotine – specifically enhanced cognition – without the numerous health threats associated with smoking.
“We’d like to see this lead to a drug that would address specifically the cognitive deficits found in schizophrenia,” said Kelvin W. Gee, professor in the Department of Pharmacology, School of Medicine at UC Irvine. Some examples of such deficits include difficulty concentrating and adapting to change and poor memory, which makes it more difficult for them to remember to take their antipsychotic medication.
“We could probably treat more schizophrenics on an outpatient basis and allow them to re-enter mainstream society if we could address cognition,” Gee said.
Anecdotally, the effect of nicotine in the brains of schizophrenics has been noted for years, Gee said. Many people with the mental illness use tobacco as a sort of self-medication to help them think more clearly.
The three-year study conducted with rodents supported the anecdotal evidence, showing that activating a certain nicotinic receptor in the brain improved working memory and made it easier to filter sensory input. Additional animal work is needed to confirm findings and make sure the compound is safe before testing can be done with human subjects.
Gee was joined in the research by Herman Ng, Edward Whittemore, Minhtam Tran, Derk Hogenkamp, Ron Broide and Timothy Johnstone, all of UCI; and by Lijun Zhang and Karen Stevens, collaborators at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Funding for the study came from a UC Discovery Grant and Xytis Pharmaceuticals.
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