E-Cigarettes Hamper Brain Development, Study Says

Researchers from the University of California, Riverside found evidence regarding the continued use of electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes causes significant brain damage. The rise of electronic vaporizers among adolescents is considered an epidemic.

The research team discovered that continued and prolonged use of electrical cigarettes might affect the user’s neural stem cells, based on an experiment conducted on rats’ neural stem cells.

UC Riverside describes these stem cells as an essential factor in brain development where they are present throughout life. Furthermore, stem cells eventually become specialized cells with more specific functions, such as brain cells, blood cells, or bone.

The sensitive structure of stem cells allows it to become excellent models for experiments that can yield result particularly on to the effects of toxicants exposure, such as cigarette smoke. 

Using cultured mouse neural stem cells, the UC Riverside researchers identified the mechanism underlying EC-induced stem cell toxicity as “stress-induced mitochondrial hyperfusion,” or SIMH. 

“SIMH is a protective, survival response,” said Prue Talbot, a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology who led the research on a UC Riverside article. “Our data show that exposure of stem cells to e-liquids, aerosols, or nicotine produces a response that leads to SIMH.”

Researchers deem that electronic cigarettes can cause significant damage with neural stem cell growth through prolonged use of nicotine-abundant electronic cigarettes.

Atena Zahedi, the first author of the research paper who received her doctoral degree in bioengineering this year, explains that SIMH is a valid defense mechanism in stem cells’ mitochondria—the part that provides energy to a cell. Through SIMH, it prolongs the life of the cells, making them less vulnerable to degradation.  

“If the nicotine stress persists, SIMH collapses, the neural stem cells get damaged and could eventually die,” Zahedi said. “If that happens, no more specialized cells — astrocytes and neurons, for example — can be produced from stem cells.”

Zahedi added that damaged stem cell mitochondria could accelerate aging and lead to neurodegenerative diseases. Neural stem cells can get exposed to nicotine through the olfactory route, she explained. Users inhale the fumes, which can travel through the olfactory tracks to reach the brain.

Atena Zahedi and Prue Talbot
Atena Zahedi (seated) is seen here with Prue Talbot. (UCR/I. Pittalwala)

Electronic cigarettes have been marketed as a better alternative to conventional light and burn cigarettes since it reduces potential toxicants from the burning of tobacco. However, it only proves true for people who have prolonged experience with the typical cigarette.

With the enticing varieties of electric cigarettes with its flavors and scents, however, it has attracted other markets such as adolescents and pregnant women. Today, one in five U.S. high school students and one in 20 middle school students currently use e-cigarettes, the Food and Drug Administration said.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has declared e-cigarettes an epidemic among youth, stressing that the electric devices are making younger generations hooked on nicotine at more convenient circumstances. Notably, it also impacts brain development which can induce mood disorders and lower impulse control.

“Their brains are in a critical developmental stage,” said Talbot, the director of the UCR Stem Cell Center. “Nicotine exposure during prenatal or adolescent development can affect the brain in multiple ways that may impair memory, learning, and cognition. Furthermore, addiction and dependence on nicotine in youth are pressing concerns. It’s worth stressing that it is nicotine that is doing damage to neural stem cells and their mitochondria. We should be concerned about this, given that nicotine is now widely available in ECs and their refill fluids.”

It is noteworthy to highlight the fact that no matter how much nicotine products such as e-cigarettes are sold with the perception of being a healthy alternative, the idea of being a “nicotine product” remains.

“Even short-term exposure can stress cells in a manner that may lead, with chronic use, to cell death or disease. Our observations are likely to pertain to any product containing nicotine,” Zahedi said.

In light of the situation, San Francisco recently banned the sale of any form of electronic cigarettes in the city. The new law also put a stop to any online transaction from delivering to a San Francisco address.

The city cited that the ban will be lifted once the FDA sets proper measures i regulating e-cigarette devices and monitor and control the sale on younger markets.

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