7 Dec 2016

Smoking alleviates schizophrenia symptoms - study

3:13 pm on 7 December 2016

New research out of Victoria University suggests smoking helps alleviate some symptoms of schizophrenia - and the PhD candidate behind it thinks her study should prompt a re-think of smoking bans in New Zealand.

The councils say signs would aim at encouraging smokers to "enjoy the fresh air and refrain from smoking".

The councils say signs would aim at encouraging smokers to "enjoy the fresh air and refrain from smoking". Photo: 123RF

Schizophrenia is notoriously difficult to treat: medication can be prescribed to mitigate the psychotic effects, such as hallucinations and delusional thinking, but the cognitive effects - like those the study is looking at - can't be treated pharmacologically.

Uta Waterhouse's pre-clinical research involved selectively breeding rats so they showed symptoms of schizophrenia - like poor attention span, or difficulties perceiving events or sounds.

The rats were then given nicotine, with their brain activity monitored before and after.

"Nicotine had a pro-cognitive effect - it basically reduced or ameliorated the cognitive deficits."

Around 80 percent of all people with schizophrenia smoke cigarettes - more than three times the national average.

Human rights barrister Richard Francois has campaigned for mental health centres to relax their rules around smoking since 2012.

Current law bans all smoking on the grounds of healthcare institutions, but Mr Francois said it was inhumane to force people to quit against their will - particularly when they're psychologically vulnerable.

"We do want people not to smoke, because it is unhealthy. But the problem with blanket bans is it always results in injustices for a small minority - and this is one of them.

"Some of these patients are forced into nicotine withdrawal, which is so detrimental to their therapeutic recovery that it doesn't make a lot of sense."

Ms Waterhouse agreed, saying a wholesale ban on smoking at healthcare facilities could be counter-productive.

"We should take into consideration that for some individuals smoking is not just an addictive habit, but there might be more underlying mechanisms in place that make it more difficult for these individuals to actually stop smoking."

Mr Francois said it was true there were nicotine replacements that could be used in place of cigarettes, but he still thought it was unfair to force psychologically vulnerable people to quit just to receive medical treatment.

Homecare Medical, which runs the anti-smoking service Quitline, said it had not had a chance to look over Ms Waterhouse's report.

But it said it developed holistic programmes for people with mental illness who wish to quit smoking.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs