Cellular and synaptic mechanisms of nicotine addiction

J Neurobiol. 2002 Dec;53(4):606-17. doi: 10.1002/neu.10148.


The tragic health effects of nicotine addiction highlight the importance of investigating the cellular mechanisms of this complex behavioral phenomenon. The chain of cause and effect of nicotine addiction starts with the interaction of this tobacco alkaloid with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs). This interaction leads to activation of reward centers in the CNS, including the mesoaccumbens DA system, which ultimately leads to behavioral reinforcement and addiction. Recent findings from a number of laboratories have provided new insights into the biologic processes that contribute to nicotine self-administration. Examination of the nAChR subtypes expressed within the reward centers has identified potential roles for these receptors in normal physiology, as well as the effects of nicotine exposure. The high nicotine sensitivity of some nAChR subtypes leads to rapid activation followed in many cases by rapid desensitization. Assessing the relative importance of these molecular phenomena in the behavioral effects of nicotine presents an exciting challenge for future research efforts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Smoking / physiopathology
  • Synapses / metabolism
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / drug effects
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / metabolism


  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • Nicotine
  • Dopamine