Nicotine

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Tobacco, which comes primarily from the plant nicotiana tabacum, has been used for centuries. It can be smoked, chewed, or sniffed. The first description of addiction to tobacco is contained in a report from the New World in which Spanish soldiers said that they could not stop smoking.

Some of the effects of nicotine include changes in respiration and blood pressure, constriction of arteries, and increased alertness. Many of these effects are produced through its action on both the central and peripheral nervous system. Nicotine readily enters the body. When tobacco is smoked, nicotine enters the bloodstream through the lungs. When it is sniffed or chewed, nicotine passes through the mucous membranes of the mouth or nose to enter the bloodstream. Nicotine can also enter the bloodstream by passing through the skin.

Regardless of how nicotine reaches the bloodstream, once there, it is distributed throughout the body and brain where it activates specific types of receptors known as cholinergic receptors. Cholinergic receptors are present in many brain structures, as well as in muscles, adrenal glands, the heart, and other body organs. These receptors are normally activated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is produced in the brain, and by neurons in the peripheral nervous system.

Acetylcholine and its receptors are involved in many activities, including respiration, maintenance of heart rate, memory, alertness, and muscle movement. Because the chemical structure of nicotine is similar to that of acetylcholine's, it is also able to activate cholinergic receptors. But unlike acetylcholine, when nicotine enters the brain and activates cholinergic receptors, it can disrupt the normal functioning of the brain.

Regular nicotine use causes changes in both the number of cholinergic receptors and the sensitivity of these receptors to nicotine and acetylcholine. Some of these changes may be responsible for the development of tolerance to nicotine. Once tolerance has developed, a nicotine user must regularly supply the brain with nicotine in order to maintain normal brain functioning. If nicotine levels drop, the nicotine user will begin to feel uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

Recently, research has shown that nicotine also stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain's pleasure circuit. Using microdialysis, a technique that allows minute quantities of neurotransmitters to be measured in precise brain areas, researchers have discovered that nicotine causes an increase in the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. This release of dopamine is similar to that seen for other drugs of abuse, such as heroin and cocaine, and is thought to underlie the pleasurable sensations experienced by many smokers.

That nicotine is a highly addictive drug can clearly be seen when one considers the vast number of people who continue to use tobacco products despite their well-known harmful and even lethal effects. In fact, at least 90% of smokers would like to quit, but each year fewer than 10% who try are actually successful. In fact, smoking is the largest preventable cause of premature death and disability. Cigarette smoking kills at least 400,000 people in the United States each year and makes countless others ill, including those who are exposed to secondhand smoke.

The use of smokeless tobacco is also associated with serious health problems. Chewing tobacco can cause cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus. It also causes damage to gums that may lead to the loss of teeth. Although popular among sports figures, smokeless tobacco can also reduce physical performance.

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