Although scientists have long bemoaned the health risks of tobacco, researchers at the Duke Center for Nicotine and Smoking Cessation Research recently found that nicotine may reduce symptoms of depression in nonsmokers and non-addicted smokers.
In a study released in the September issue of the journal Psychopharmacology, the researchers suggested it may be possible to reduce symptoms of depression by manipulating nicotine's effects in order to create similar compounds lacking in the stimulant's harmful addictive property.
"The hope is that our research on nicotine will spur the development of new treatments for depression, which is a huge public health problem," said Dr. Joseph McClernon, an assistant research professor of medical psychiatry and lead study investigator, in a statement.
The team aimed to explore links between nicotine and depression through the study.
Nicotine-like drugs are already being developed to remedy various diseases, including schizophrenia, attention deficient hyperactivity disorder, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.
Nonsmokers experiencing symptoms of depression were randomly assigned either a nicotine patch or a placebo patch.
Those who wore the nicotine patch for at least eight days experienced a significant decline in depression symptoms.
"Smokers may be more prone to depression than nonsmokers," said Dr. Edward Levin, associate professor of biological psychiatry and a senior investigator in the study.
"People with depression may be self-medicating by smoking, albeit in a deadly way," he added.
Nicotine stimulates the release of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which are strongly associated with depression.
Scientists have established that people prone to depression are twice as likely to be smokers, and are less likely to succeed in quitting smoking after taking up the habit, McClernon added.
The Duke study explored the theories behind the higher smoking rates.
Researchers were quick to point out, however, that nicotine in its pure should never be used to treat depression.
"I certainly recommend that people don't smoke," Levin added. "If you do smoke, quit."
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