Buffalo researchers think schizophrenics might be cured with anti-smoking drugs

Schizophrenia is a cypher to science. It is an inherited disease, yet it does not go strictly from one generation to the next. It may skip a few. There are even arguments that schizophrenia may be caused by environmental instead of genetic factors. But one thing most schizophrenics have in common:

They smoke. A lot.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo believe that schizophrenics smoke because nicotine is a form of self-medication, and that by working with smoking cessation drugs (nicotinic agonists, they call that), doctors may be able to help repair cognitive functions of the sufferers.

How is this possible? They believe they have discovered a single genetic pathway, or series of DNA segments that work together, that controls as many as 160 different traits, all associated with the disease:

 “How is it possible to have 100 patients with schizophrenia and each one has a different genetic mutation that causes the disorder?” asks Stachowiak. “It’s possible because INFS integrates diverse neurological signals that control the development of embryonic stem cell and neural progenitor cells, and links pathways involving schizophrenia-linked genes.

“INFS functions like the conductor of an orchestra,” explains Stachowiak. “It doesn’t matter which musician is playing the wrong note, it brings down the conductor and the whole orchestra. With INFS, we propose that when there is an alteration or mutation in a single schizophrenia-linked gene, the INFS system that controls development of the whole brain becomes untuned. That’s how schizophrenia develops.”

The link between smoking and schizophrenia is well-established. Because there is such a strong, common link between smoking and this otherwise disparately symptomatic disease, researchers believe that nicotine and nicotinic agonists may be affecting this pathway.

Health Rochester Science

Does quitting smoking ease back pain? U of R study

Scientists are often fond of saying “correlation does not prove causality.” That meaning: just because two things happen at the same time or in sequence in no way implies that one caused the other. They may simply have coincidentally happened in an order tantalizing us to make hasty assumptions.

I cannot say for certain that the study the University of Rochester released today does or does not display that false sense of causality. But my sense is that much more research is probably necessary. This study followed about 5,000 respondents to a questionnaire about pain after treatment for back issues. The results pretty conclusively correlated less back pain with those who either quit smoking years ago or never smoked, compared to those who currently smoked. However:

Of the 5,333 people, those who had never smoked or had quit some time ago reported less pain than smokers or those who had just quit. By the end of the follow-up period, the people who had recently quit or who quit during treatment showed significant improvements in pain. People who continued to smoke during treatment had no improvement in pain on all scales.

Behrend noted that younger people tended to comprise the group of current smokers and those who only decided to quit during treatment; this is consistent with other studies showing that smoking is associated with degenerative spine disease at a younger age. Older patients tended to comprise the group who had never smoked or quit long ago.

The trouble here is that we’re dealing with two hugely divergent groups of people. To simply say that the fact that they smoke or don’t smoke is one correlated item is to completely under cut all the other vastly significant differences between these two groups. For example: those who continue to smoke into old age are probably also making a great deal many more decisions which are not beneficial to their health. And those who quit smoking while still young are probably eager to move on.

When I quit smoking six years or so ago, I swore I’d never be what I always referred to as a “Born Again Non-Smoker.” It is easy, when smoking is such a great scapegoat and straw man, to blame the habit for all the ills of any individual and claim the Holy Grail of health benefits every time something seems to prove a socially agreed-upon conclusion. But this report leaves a whole lot to be desired in the facts department.


Does Imposing Cigarette Taxes Encourage Better Behavior?

For about ten years of my life, I was a proud and defiant smoker. I enjoyed a good cigarette at lunch time and I will not lie: I still occasionally smell something attractive – if not overly pleasant – about cigarette smoke as I pass through the doors of the local malls and restaurants. Through most of this time, I was working at jobs that paid considerably less than I currently make. Indeed, these entry-level jobs in the IT world paid somewhat less than a living wage for a single person.

But at no time did I ever seriously consider quitting my habit for financial reasons. I’d bum smokes off people; I’d complain about the prices; I’d sit in my livingroom and climb the walls till pay day. But I never once said, “cigarette prices are too high! I’m quitting.” Tut-tut if you must, but I suspect that this is also the case with many other current and former smokers.

Yet it is precisely this fiction that is trotted out every time the cigarette tax goes up in New York or nationally: raising taxes on cigarettes is a disincentive to smoking them. My evidence thus presented is purely anecdotal and colored by my personal opinion of the matter, but I recently decided to go in search of more tangible evidence to suggest the real effect of taxation on populations of smokers. The thought came to mind when I once again heard about the “Fat VAT” on sugary drinks proposed on both the New York State and national levels.

The results of my initial research are, well, not terribly supportive of that or really any other hypothesis, I’m afraid. The numbers have been adjusted as seemed fair by comparing the taxes not on their own, but rather as a percent of income. In this way, we get a truer sense of what the relative “weight” of a cigarette tax actually is in each state.

New York is helpfully (depending on your point of view) at the very top of the most-taxed stogie states in the Union. Yet our smoking population, while certainly much lower than many other states, is not where you might expect it to be if the hypothesis were true. Meanwhile, the next most taxed state by income, Rhode Island is about as near to the top of the list of smokin’est states as we are to the bottom of the list. And all down the line, there is nothing approaching a consistent pattern.

To be sure, this data is at best evidence rather than proof of anything conclusive. There are a number of variables not factored in, such as cultural and historic factors. We may certainly say that the comparing the various states on cultural levels is indeed comparing apples to oranges. What we might really prefer – and what I have as yet had difficulty locating – is data in a specific state, organized by year, so we can see the percent change in taxes relative to the percent change in smokers.

But even if we allow these faults, certainly one would expect at least some smattering of – some semblance of – a pattern. The scatter chart on the second tab shows this not to be the case – if anything, a reverse trend could be imagined from the data.