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Breaking Nicotine’s Hold

Boston University student Bhavya Narala

Bhavya Narala (CAS’15) is studying the effects of nicotine withdrawal on the brain and hopes to provide new insights on the stimulant’s impact. Photo by Dan Watkins.

For America's 42.1 million smokers, the best hopes of quitting—willpower, gum, prescribed drugs—don’t offer much hope at all. Only about 4 to 7 percent will break the habit with self-resolve alone; medications might give a smoker just a 25 percent or so chance of being nicotine free within a year.

In a lab at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, undergraduate Bhavya Narala is working on a better option. With lecturer Barak Caine, Narala (’15) is studying the effects of nicotine withdrawal on the brain. By the end of the project, the psychology major hopes to provide pharmaceutical companies with new insights on the stimulant’s impact—the foundation for a more effective smoking cessation drug.

This is what a drag on a cigarette feels like: your heart rate rises about 15 beats per minute, your mood swings up, and your memory improves. The glamor ends there; sweating, nausea, and diarrhea can follow, too. Keep the habit up and you’ll shave 10 years off your life. Try to beat it, and within three hours, the discouraging withdrawal symptoms—headaches, trouble sleeping (and nasty dreams if you do nod off), anxiety, and more—will kick in.

At McLean, a hospital specializing in helping people with psychiatric illnesses, Narala has been testing two nicotine antagonists: mecamylamine, a onetime hypertension treatment, and an alkaloid, DhßE. Both have been studied for their ability to block the addictively pleasurable effects of nicotine. In her research, Narala has been tying the antagonists to certain receptors in the brain, trying to see which ones they most affect. That information, she says, would allow a pharmaceutical company to “formulate a drug dependent on the receptors we found, which they will send back for us to test.”

She compares her target formulation to an existing medication, Chantix, billed by its manufacturer as the country’s most “prescribed Rx quit-smoking aid.” Chantix hooks onto the brain’s nicotine receptors, locking out the nicotine in the cigarette treatments and seemingly reducing production of our feel-good hormone, dopamine.

“Chantix is pretty similar in terms of trying to alleviate nicotine withdrawal,” says Narala. “The problem is that it has a lot of side effects and it is very temporary. We’re trying to find a drug that almost works like that, except that it will alleviate a lot of the side effects and won’t be temporary, so that even when a person stops taking the drug, hopefully they won’t relapse.”

Narala, who plans to attend medical school after graduation, was able to join Caine’s research as part of BU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. The program, funded by alumni gifts and corporate and government grants, supports students completing research projects under the direction of faculty from across the University. Narala says her lab work and classroom experiences, particularly recent courses on abnormal psychology and on drugs and behavior, inform each other neatly.

“The process of addiction is a combination of science and psychology,” she says, “and it’s the perfect way for me to be able to engage in both fields.”

Information provided by Boston University