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Study looks at schizophrenia and smoking

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 6/12/2016

People with schizophrenia could be using smoking to alleviate symptoms of the disorder, according to a Victoria University study.

Researcher Uta Waterhouse says she wanted to find out what was driving the unusually high smoking rate - up to 90 per cent - among individuals with schizophrenia.

That figure compares with 50 per cent for people with other mental disorders, and between 20 and 23 per cent for the general population..

She examined the addictive effects of nicotine to see if it helped reduce symptoms of schizophrenia.

She also looked for commonality in the neurobiological pathways in both addiction and schizophrenia.

She said she found in pre-clinical studies that nicotine improved the cognitive deficits - the negative changes in brain function - associated with schizophrenia.

"My findings did not support the theory that both schizophrenia and nicotine addiction share common neurobiological pathways," she said.

"But it clearly showed that nicotine has a positive effect on the problematic changes to brain function that come with schizophrenia."

Ms Waterhouse, who is about to graduate with a PhD in psychology, said this explained why so many patients with schizophrenia were smokers.

"It's a way of self-medicating," she said.

"This is particularly important because, at the moment, there is no pharmacological treatment for the cognitive deficits that are a symptom of schizophrenia."

She said this might be an area that warranted further exploration by pharmaceutical companies.

She also said her findings raised questions for policymakers, in that smoking bans in places like hospitals could be having a greater adverse impact on schizophrenic patients than previously thought.

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