Researchers revolutionizing understanding of nicotine’s effect on adolescent brain

Pretty young hipster

By Prabhjot Sohal

Professor Steven R. Laviolette, PhD Professor Steven R. Laviolette, PhD

A team of researchers at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, led by Professor Steven R. Laviolette, PhD, is redefining our understanding of nicotine's impact on the adolescent brain.

With a substantial $1.4-million project grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, (CIHR), the team is studying the neurotoxic effects of nicotine – focusing on its intake via e-cigarettes and vapes — and exploring its link to mood and anxiety disorders among youth.

In this first-of-its-kind study, using both animal and human models, the researchers are also pioneering intervention strategies to mitigate the ill-effects of nicotine on the adolescent brain.

“Even though overall smoking rates are declining in the general population, vaping and e-cigarettes are becoming more popular, especially among young people. A lot of these products have very high concentrations of nicotine,” said Laviolette, director of the Addictions Research Group at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

“Our previous work shows that exposure to nicotine during adolescence can increase the risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders in later life. But we don't really know why. Bridging this gap, we are looking at specific mechanisms in the adolescent brain that signal the increased risk of depression or anxiety disorder in adulthood,” said Laviolette, who is professor in the Departments of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and Psychiatry.

One of the novel aspects of this research is the direct translation of findings from animal models to human populations.

In animal models, the researchers are using an innovative open-source vaping system developed by Schulich Medicine & Dentistry researchers to simulate human consumption patterns of nicotine through vapes. This method allows the team to examine how nicotine affects brain areas linked to mood and anxiety disorders.

“We are imaging and quantifying neurotransmitters like GABA, glutamate, and dopamine in the brain post-nicotine exposure. These neurotransmitters are known to be dysregulated in mood and anxiety disorders, providing a crucial link between nicotine exposure and mental health risks.”

Brain scans of human and animal models showing effects of adolescent nicotine exposure.

Brain scans of human and animal models showing effects of adolescent nicotine exposure.


While exploring potential intervention strategies, a key focus of the study is on a compound known as N-acetylcysteine (NAC), which has shown to mitigate some of the adverse effects of adolescent nicotine consumption on the brain. NAC's role as an antioxidant potentially blocks brain inflammation caused by nicotine, offering a promising avenue for treatment.

The multidisciplinary team comprises experts in genomics, psychiatry, neuroimaging, and clinical research, including Professors Dr. Robert Hegele, Jean Théberge, Dr. Elizabeth Osuch, Jibran Khokhar and Walter J Rushlow.

The research team is also investigating genetic markers that could predispose individuals to nicotine dependence and mood or anxiety disorders, further expanding the scope of their research.

Currently, the team is recruiting participants, particularly those with a history of adolescent smoking, to study the levels of GABA and glutamate in the human brain.