“hooked on the sound like it’s nicotine”

This apt metaphor comes from the current BBC Radio 1 hit, “Make Peace Not War” by the BritRap DJ, Skepta (known to his Nigerian-born parents as Joseph Junior Adenuga). I highly recommend its addition to your MP3 player, if only for the addictive hooky sample, “Everybody Dance, Now.”

As you may have guessed, the nicotine addict pictured above is not Skepta, but my own dear, long-since departed father (known to his Irish-born parents as “Red,” and to his shipmates as “Rosie”). Indeed, this picture comes from the official Naval book, U.S.S. WALKE, Korean Cruise, October 1950 to August 1951. What’s he like, eh? While everyone else in the book is pictured in uniform and smiling, the editors chose to let the Executive Officer’s inner wolf flag fly: “The Exec…If you felt you’d been [on deployment] too long, if you weren’t completely happy with your work, if you had any little problem at all, you just brought it in to this kindly old soul. He knew just how you felt.” [Note the use of the Poetic Speech function.]

A propos Memorial Day weekend, I will quote further from the book: “At 0740, June 12, 1951…a heavy explosion. In one stunning moment the full agony of war came home to us. In that moment 26 shipmates lost their lives and 40 more were wounded. Out of disaster came heroism and determination. The wounded were brought to safety and then we saved the ship. In the ordeal that followed a good ship became a great one…and the WALKE and the men who sailed her lived to fight again.”

One is tempted to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, North Korea!” However, alas, it was Rosie, and many of his fellow Americans, who did the smoking; and this post is yet another attempt to understand why.

The research I will quote comes from an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, published on 17 June 2010: “Nicotine Addiction,” by Neal L. Benowitz, M.D. He begins with the usual grim statistics. “Cigarette smoking remains a leading cause of preventable disease and premature death in the United States and other countries. On average 435,000 people in the United States die prematurely from smoking-related diseases each year; smoking causes 1 in 5 deaths. The chance that a lifelong smoker will die prematurely from a complication of smoking is approximately 50%.”

So, what gives? Are all those smokers (including smart, brave, stoical Rosie) just Crazy Like a Fox? Maybe. “The pharmacologic reasons for nicotine use are enhancement of mood, either directly or through relief of withdrawal symptoms, and augmentation of mental and physical functions.” Wait, what? Don’t tell your “Kangaroo” [aka attention-challenged] children; but Benowitz cites lab animal & human research studies suggesting that nicotine improves concentration and adherence to task. The evidence is more compelling [and also ethically distressing] in the rat studies, since one would presume that the rats are responding only to the cholinergic effects of the nicotine, not to the learned social cues and expectations so exhaustively explored on MadMen.

To totally simplify his neuroscience-speak, the initial chemical effect of nicotine on the brain is to increase available dopamine [leading to a sense of calm well-being & “in-the-zone” mental/physical performance]. But soon the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (known to their friends as nAChRs) become desensitized, “demanding” ever higher doses of nicotine, just to forestall (in rats) “anxiety-like behavior and the release of corticotrophic-releasing factor (CRF) in the central nucleus of the amygdala.” Aha! Our old nemesis, the howling wolf [amygdala, yah?] is flooded with toxic CRF, resulting in (unaccountable) fear (aka anxiety), and pain & suffering. No wonder those in nicotine withdrawal are so cranky!

Benowitz is not a big fan of [comparatively inefficient] nicotine-replacement delivery systems [such as gum or trans-dermal patches]. He believes in shielding the nAChRs from the depredations of nicotine in the first place. Short of psychosurgery or serendipitous Traumatic Brain Injury, however, no such nicotine-eluding technology yet exists.

Like a hooky song you can’t get out of your head, once you take “Nico” on board, you may have a “shipmate” for life.

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Filed under crazy like a fox, limbic system, stress and cortisol

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