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Genes for Nicotine Dependence Identified

th low-level smokers and heavier smokers. They are also working with colleagues at the University of Colorado to develop a mouse with the same variant in the CHRNA5 gene that seems to increase the risk of nicotine dependence. That would allow them to compare the effects of nicotine in mice with and without the genetic variation.

Tobacco use, primarily through cigarette smoking, is a leading cause of death and disability. Each year, approximately 440,000 Americans die of smoking-related illnesses, and worldwide, deaths attributed to tobacco total about 5 million.

Although the prevalence of cigarette smoking has decreased over the last 30 years in the United States, the rate of smoking cessation among adults has been slowing since the mid-1990s. In addition, adolescents continue to start smoking, with 21 percent of high school students reporting they have smoked a cigarette sometime in the last month.

More than half of the people who smoke at least five packs in their lives — 100 cigarettes — go on to become nicotine dependent. But about 15 percent of people who smoke that amount won't develop any symptoms of nicotine dependence. "These people can give up smoking at any time," Bierut says. "They have no cravings. They smoke socially."

Earlier research suggested that smoking behaviors tend to cluster in families, and large studies of twins previously concluded that the clustering is partly related to genetic factors. An important aspect of these latest studies is that rather than comparing smokers to non-smokers, the researchers compared addicted smokers to non-addicted smokers.

"You're not at risk for nicotine dependence unless you've smoked," Bierut says. "You have to study smokers to identify the people who are at risk of becoming nicotine dependent versus those who smoke but can give it up at any time."

Bierut says it's important to find genetic factors related to nicotine dependence because so much of the
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