Nav: Home

Researcher finds key clues about 'betel nut' addiction that plagues millions worldwide

October 22, 2015

For hundreds of millions of people around the world, chewing betel nut produces a cheap, quick high but also raises the risk of addiction and oral cancer. Now, new findings by a University of Florida Health researcher reveal how the nut's psychoactive chemical works in the brain and suggest that an addiction treatment may already exist.

The betel nut, a seed of the areca palm, is grown and used throughout India, parts of China and much of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and most of the Pacific islands. Chewing the betel quid -- a mixture of areca nut, spices and slaked lime wrapped in betel vine leaves -- has been a cultural tradition in those regions for centuries. In small doses, it creates a sense of euphoria and alertness. Prolonged use can create addiction and the World Health Organization classifies the betel nut as a carcinogen.

Findings published today (Oct. 21) in the journal PLOS One show that the nut's active ingredient, arecoline, acts on the same receptor proteins in the brain as nicotine. This raises the possibility that prescription drugs now used to break nicotine dependence could also be effective against betel nut addiction, said Roger L. Papke, Ph.D., a professor in the UF College of Medicine department of pharmacology and therapeutics.

"Without knowing why people become dependent, there was no way to help them get over the dependence. This provides a new avenue toward treating the addiction," Papke said.

The implications of learning more about the nature of betel nut addiction are vast: One estimate puts the number of regular users at 200 million to 600 million, and betel nut is widely regarded as the world's fourth most-used stimulant after caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.

Papke's initial idea to study the activity of the betel nut and its active ingredient arecoline started with writing rather than science. Papke, who has authored a book about the history of firearms development, was studying a Bornean headhunter's sword. He wondered whether its psychedelic carvings were influenced by betel nut use.

That propelled Papke into the lab, where he started studying arecoline's effect on particular protein molecules in the brain. The molecules included the nicotinic receptors which play central roles in nicotine addiction.

To determine whether arecoline acts on the same addiction-causing receptor, Papke used ovarian cells from a frog injected with human genes so that they mimic the nicotinic receptors found in a human brain. After applying areca nut extract, the results suggested that it activated the same receptor as nicotine, and did so in a way that could affect a person's behavior.

"That showed a commonality between the dependence mechanism for betel nut use and the dependence mechanism for smokers," he said.

It also raised another intriguing question: If betel nuts and nicotine work on the same receptors in the human brain, could the drugs now used for nicotine addiction be useful for betel nut dependence? Perhaps so, Papke said.

The most effective anti-smoking drugs, varenicline, which is sold under the trade name Chantix, and cytisine, work on receptors that are responsible for creating nicotine addiction. Those same receptors appear to be involved in betel nut addiction, raising the possibility that anti-smoking drugs could help betel nut users, according to the research findings.

"This is the first time that there's even a potential avenue for treating this dependence, which exists in probably hundreds of millions of people," Papke said.

Next, Papke said he would like to find collaborators to do a psychological survey of betel nut users and identify people who want help quitting. He also wants the findings to get more attention among groups with international reach, such as the World Health Organization. Yet that raises a conundrum: Countries with the most betel nut users don't have significant resources for scientific research. Nations with the money for research don't have many betel nut users, Papke said.

"It's not a problem that's going to go away. We have a discovery and we need to realize the potential of the discovery to better the human condition," he said.
-end-
The research was supported by National Institutes of Health grant GM57481.

University of Florida

Related Nicotine Articles:

Nicotine vapour more rewarding for adolescents than adults
University of Guelph researchers are the first to discover that adolescents react differently to e-cigarette vapour than adults.
Understanding the link between nicotine use and misuse of 'benzos'
Lately, misuse of prescription benzodiazepines (such as alprazolam or Xanax, and diazepam or Valium) has been linked to nicotine use.
Popular electronic cigarette may deliver nicotine more effectively than others
When it comes to nicotine delivery, not all electronic cigarettes are created equally, according to Penn State researchers.
Fetal nicotine exposure harms breathing in infants
Exposure to nicotine during development inhibits the function of neurons controlling the tongue, according to research in newborn rats recently published in eNeuro.
Diabetes drug relieves nicotine withdrawal
A drug commonly used to treat Type II diabetes abolishes the characteristic signs of nicotine withdrawal in rats and mice, according to new research published in JNeurosci.
The nicotine in e-cigarettes appears to impair mucus clearance
E-cigarette vaping with nicotine appears to hamper mucus clearance from the airways, according to new research published online in the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Truth telling about tobacco and nicotine
In 'Truth Telling about Tobacco and Nicotine,' PRC researchers explain that, although there is agreement among researchers about evidence that vaping can be less harmful than combustible cigarettes, the tobacco control community remains divided about how to communicate -- or even whether to communicate -- information about the relative risks of tobacco and nicotine products.
This is a neuron on nicotine
Newly developed sensors visually illustrate how nicotine affects cells from the inside out.
New data suggests nicotine while pregnant alters genes
A University of Houston biomedical research team is reporting that a possible cure for addiction may be found by following the pathways of significantly altered dopamine neurons in newborns who were chronically exposed to nicotine in utero.
Ex-smokers might be better off with high rather than low nicotine e-cigs
Vapers using low rather than high nicotine e-cigarettes may be using their devices more intensely, potentially increasing the risk of exposure to toxins in the vapour, according to new research funded by Cancer Research UK and published in Addiction today.
More Nicotine News and Nicotine Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.