It’s been noticed for several years that many of the people who suffer from mental illness also smoke cigarettes. The habit is especially frequent among individuals who have developed schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder that causes hallucinations and delusional thoughts.
Psychiatric researcher Sameer Jauhar of King’s College London is one of the experts who wanted to look into this strange relationship. He sees a lot of psychotic patients entertaining a smoking habit, and he dismissed the theory that says they do it as a form of self-medication.
Jauhar’s study, published in the online journal The Lancet Psychiatry, focuses on a new theory instead: what if cigarette smoking is in some way increasing the risk of developing schizophrenia?
After analyzing more than 60 studies conducted since 1980, Jauhar’s research team discovered a pattern; schizophrenic patients who seek treatment for the first time are three times more likely to smoke when compared to the general population.
Tobacco use is especially popular among people living in Western countries. Co-author on this study was Dr. James MacCabe, who specializes in psychiatric research at King’s College; he said he was not surprised that almost half of schizophrenics also smoke.
However, the study’s findings challenge the theory stating that smoking among psychotic patients is a form of easing one’s symptoms. If that were the case, people who started developing schizophrenia would present no higher chance of smoking than the rest of the population, and the smoking would come as a response to the symptoms.
Researchers also discovered that those who deal with schizophrenia started using tobacco at a younger age than smokers who had no mental illnesses. Their smoking also began before any psychotic symptoms could be identified.
Because more research needs to be done on the subject for more conclusive results, Jauhar voiced his theory just as suggestion: nicotine might stimulate production of dopamine, the brain chemical responsible for reward and pleasure centers.
Patients with psychosis often present increased levels of dopamine, and most of the available medications for schizophrenia specifically target dopamine activity in an attempt to reduce it.
If further research proves this theory linking smoking and schizophrenia, doctors will start advising people who are at risk for the disorder – because of substance abuse or family history – to kick the habit.
Reducing smoking among the general population for physical health reasons is important, but this study suggests that smoking less – or not at all – might also benefit people’s mental health.
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