New York: Researchers have crystallised and determined the 3D structure of a protein that could help them develop new treatments by understanding nicotine's molecular effects.
The protein, called alpha-4-beta-2 nicotinic receptor, sits on nerve cells in the brain. Nicotine binds to the receptor when someone smokes a cigarette or chews tobacco, causing the protein to open a path for ions to enter the cell.
The process produces cognitive benefits such as increased memory and focus but is also highly addictive.
Until the new findings were reported in the journal Nature, scientists did not have a way to examine at atomic resolution how nicotine achieves these addictive effects.
"It's going to require a huge team of people and a pharmaceutical company to study the protein and develop the drugs, but I think this is the first major stepping stone to making that happen," said study co-author Ryan Hibbs, assistant professor at the Peter O'Donnell Jr Brain Institute at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in the US.
The expectation is that the 3D structures will help researchers understand how nicotine influences the activity of the receptor and lead to a medication that mimics its actions in the brain.
The finding may also have benefits in creating medications for certain types of epilepsy, mental illness, and dementia such as Alzheimer's, which are also associated with the nicotinic receptor, the researchers said.
However, testing of any ensuing treatment would likely take many years, Hibbs cautioned.
Studies have shown smoking cessation drugs have mixed results in treating nicotine addiction, as have other methods such as nicotine patches and chewing gum.