Study co-author Patrick P. Michel of the Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle Epiniere, Hopital de la Salpetriere, in Paris, says to make this discovery, scientists used mice genetically engineered without a specific nicotine receptor -- the alpha-7 subtype -- and mice with a functional receptor.
Using tissue from mouse embryos, the researchers prepared brain cultures using conditions that favor the slowly progressing loss of dopamine neurons -- a hallmark of the disease.
The scientists found nicotine had the potential to rescue dopamine neurons in cultures from normal mice, but not in cultures from mice without the nicotine receptor.
"This study raises the hope for a possible neuroprotective treatment of patients at an early step of the disease or even before at a stage where the disease has not been diagnosed according to motor criteria," Michel says in a statement.
The findings suggest it may be feasible to develop novel therapies for Parkinson's disease that target nicotine receptors.
"If you're a smoker, don't get too excited," Dr. Gerald Weissmann, editor in chief of The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal, advises. "Even if smoking protects you from Parkinson's, you might not live long enough to develop the disease because smoking greatly increases the risk for deadly cancers and cardiovascular diseases. But now, we should be able find non-toxic ways to hit the same target."
The findings are published in The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal.