Dr. Rachael Tyndale and her team of fellow scientists from the University of Toronto think that they may have just discovered why some people can effectively quit smoking almost instantly while others struggle for years with only intermittent success. The reason might be a strangely-named gene called CYP2A6 that helps determine the rate at which the human body processes nicotine.
According to the team’s research, approximately 25 to 40 percent of people possess the CYP2A6 gene, and as a result, they tend to inhale less deeply and less often than those who don’t. These are the very same people who can seemingly quit cold-turkey without any apparent side effects. Unfortunately, about 75 percent of the population are far less fortunate. Because they lack the CYP2A6 gene, they inhale deeper, more frequently, and, therefore, process nicotine much faster, making it often excruciating to quit.
How genetic research can help smokers quit
Dr. Tyndale is quick to point out that all hope is not lost for the CYP2A6-enhanced group. Genetic research also helps scientists predict which smoking cessation methods and prescription medications will likely work best for each group. By studying the differences in the brain development of both groups, she and her team have uncovered some rather interesting data.
- “Fast nicotine processors,“ or people with the CYP2A6 gene, tend to have more intense emotional reactions when shown pictures of people smoking.
- This suggests a primary reason for the increased difficulty when trying to quit smoking.
- However, when the fast processing group is finally successful in quitting, the physical, emotional, and mental health benefits are usually far more intense as well, compared to the slow processors group.
- For fast possessors, using the prescription drug varenicline (Champix/Chantex) tends to result in greater levels of mental focus and concentration with reduced levels of anxiety and irritability.
- Varenicline also tends to be a much more successful alternative than “the patch” and nicotine gum for this same group.
By scanning the brains of smokers, Dr. Tyndale and her colleagues discovered more activity occurring in the areas of the brain associated with addiction in people possessing the CYP2A6 gene than in those that don’t. For non-smokers, there were no differences in brain activity whether the people possess the gene or not.
As the head of pharmacogenetics at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and professor of psychiatry, pharmacology, and toxicology at the University of Toronto, Dr. Tyndale vows to continue her genetic research. While much of the team’s current data targets more conventional nicotine replacement therapies, she and her colleagues are now focusing more strongly on vaping’s ability to help both slow and fast processors of nicotine to “kick the habit” once and for all. A brief writeup of her research can be located in the Toronto Star online newspaper.
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