In the United States in 2021, about one in every 50 high school students reported smoking a cigarette in the past month, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. For the same time frame, that number jumped to one in nine for e-cigarettes.
Most smokers form this habit before age 25. Previous research has offered some explanation, including a link between parents who smoke and the addiction risk of their children. Heath Schmidt, a neuroscientist in Penn Nursing, wanted to better understand this connection.
“There’s plenty of epidemiological data to indicate that the offspring of parents who smoke tobacco products will go on to develop or be at higher risk for developing nicotine dependence,” says Schmidt, an associate professor of nursing and psychiatry. “There’s a lot to suss out in all of that.”
Schmidt studies what happens in the brain during addiction, aiming to parse why addictive behaviors come to pass and how treatment options might improve. In this latest work, he and colleagues from Penn’s School of Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine, Temple University, and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers wanted to determine the heritable effects of paternal exposure to nicotine.
Using a novel rat animal model, the researchers found that males that voluntarily self-administered nicotine for 60 days produced offspring more likely to self-administer nicotine, too. This was true for both male and female young. The team also discovered that the male offspring of these parents developed impaired memory and anxiety-like behavior.
The researchers published their findings in the Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry. Penn Today spoke with Schmidt about the work and its implications.
Funding for this research came from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (grants R01 DA037897, R21 DA039393, R21 DA045792, R01 DA033641, T32 DA028874, T32 GM008076, and K01 DA039308) and from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Heath Schmidt is an associate professor of nursing at the School of Nursing, and an associate professor of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine. He is also part of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior.