Yale researchers are optimistic that it will soon be possible to control human appetite with prescription drugs after a study at the School of Medicine this June revealed the exact mechanism by which nicotine suppresses smokers’ appetites. The discovery offers exciting opportunities for treating conditions like obesity, as well as decreasing the number of people who smoke, Marina Picciotto, a professor of psychiatry, neurobiology and pharmacology at the medical school said.

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Picciotto, who was a senior author on the paper, which was published in the journal Science, said previous literature has established that nicotine from smoking affects more than just the part of the brain that regulates energy metabolism and appetite. But Daniela Gündisch, a collaborator at the University of Hawaii, is engineering nicotine-based chemicals that target only the receptors of the brain cells that control appetite and not those that are important for reward and addiction, in order to avoid the addictive quality of regular nicotine.

This treatment could help obese people regulate their weight, Picciotto said.

“Our first target group would be smokers who are afraid to quit because they are afraid to gain weight,” Picciotto said.

Neurobiology professor Sabrina Diano, a collaborator and author of the paper, pointed to the negative consequences of current appetite suppressants on the market, which activate specific brain cells that decrease the amount of food people need. Constantly activating specific brain cells can produce free radicals, chemically reactive particles that increase aging and are damaging to cells, a process that can be harmful, she said.

These potentially dangerous effects highlight the importance of researching alternate remedies.

“Appetite suppressants exist, but obesity continues to rise because there is more to [treating obesity] than suppressing an appetite,” said James Zervios, the director of communications at Obesity Action Coalition, a national non-profit organization that supports obesity education.

Zervios added that in order to lose weight, a nicotine-based product could be a potential addition to deliberate changes in behavior and lifestyle. But for those who are morbidly obese, or obese due to psychological reasons such as trauma, a nicotine-based drug would not be an effective treatment method, Zervios said.

Beyond treating obese people, the new drug could prevent teenagers from starting to smoke, Picciotto said.

Patrick Reynolds, the executive director of the Foundation for a Smokefree America and the grandson of tobacco company founder R.J. Reynolds, whose company produces Camel cigarettes, said that nine in 10 smokers became addicted to tobacco before the age of 19. Yale researchers suggest that these people might never start smoking if there is a drug on the market that has the weight loss effects of nicotine without the addictive results of smoking.

Indeed, Picciotto said many people, particularly teenage girls, report that they start smoking to control their weight. While Diano does not believe weight control is a reason people necessarily begin smoking, she does think it is one reason people keep smoking.

Reynolds agreed and pointed to an advertisement for Virgina Slims, a brand of cigarettes manufactured by the parent company of Phillip Morris USA, which targeted young women by displaying slender, beautiful models and playing on the feminist movement.

“The implication is that smoking will give a pretty figure,” Reynolds said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, smokers gain less than 10 pounds when they quit smoking.