Washington DC: A team of researchers has found key clues about 'betel nut' addiction that plagues millions worldwide.
For hundreds of millions of people around the world, chewing betel nut produces a cheap, quick high but also raises the risk of addiction and oral cancer. Now, the University of Florida Health researchers reveal how the nut's psychoactive chemical works in the brain and suggest that an addiction treatment may already exist.
The betel nut, a seed of the areca palm, is grown and used throughout India, parts of China and much of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and most of the Pacific islands. Chewing the betel quid-a mixture of areca nut, spices and slaked lime wrapped in betel vine leaves-has been a cultural tradition in those regions for centuries. In small doses, it creates a sense of euphoria and alertness. Prolonged use can create addiction and the World Health Organization classifies the betel nut as a carcinogen.
The study shows that the nut's active ingredient, arecoline, acts on the same receptor proteins in the brain as nicotine. This raises the possibility that prescription drugs now used to break nicotine dependence could also be effective against betel nut addiction, said researcher Roger L. Papke.
It also raised another intriguing question: If betel nuts and nicotine work on the same receptors in the human brain, could the drugs now used for nicotine addiction be useful for betel nut dependence? Perhaps so, Papke said.
The most effective anti-smoking drugs, varenicline, which is sold under the trade name Chantix, and cytisine, work on receptors that are responsible for creating nicotine addiction. Those same receptors appear to be involved in betel nut addiction, raising the possibility that anti-smoking drugs could help betel nut users, according to the research findings.
"This is the first time that there's even a potential avenue for treating this dependence, which exists in probably hundreds of millions of people," Papke said.
The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.