Electronic cigarettes are often hailed as being safer alternatives for nicotine delivery than traditional cigarettes, but we are becoming more and more aware of the hidden dangers of e-cigs. E-cigs often provide a glamorous alternative to cigarettes and offer appealing flavors which has opened up the market to people who find traditional tobacco use unattractive.
Unfortunately, many of the new e-cig manufacturers are modernizing designs and gone are the days of the only e-cigs available containing large and cumbersome battery packs. Now you can find e-cigs as small as a USB flash drive and they are easier for populations of youths to carry and conceal. With very little evidence or smells to tip off parents, the new generation of adolescents and teens that are using the e-cigs (often called vapes) can disguise their nicotine use from parents and teachers. This is an alarming trend because e-cigarettes have been studied and damage brain stem cells, particularly in adolescents and pregnant women.
The study published June 2019 was centered around the leading e-cig brand, Vuse, which offers a slim vape pen or a flatter, flash-drive style vaporizer. Prue Talbot (a professor from the Department of Molecular, Cells, and Stems Biology) led the research alongside Atena Zahedi (who holds a doctorate in bioengineering). Their work focuses on “stress-induced mitochondrial hyperfusion” otherwise known as SIMH. SIMH is a survival response of the cells that occurs in an effort to protect the cells.
Talbot and Zahedi found that the high and inconsistent levels of nicotine delivered by the electronic cigarettes cause a nicotine flood to the receptors in neural stem cell membranes. Even inhaling the fumes can cause nicotine to travel to neural stem cells through the olfactory system, exposing people who are in close proximity to an electronic cigarette user. This nicotine binds to the receptors and causes them to open, leaving them open for other ions and calcium to enter the cell membrane, resulting in a calcium overload.
The overload of calcium harms the mitochondria of the cell because it causes swelling in the mitochondria which ultimately changes their function and morphology. Some of the changes to the mitochondria result in ruptures and can release molecules leading to the death of the cells in which they were contained. If the stress from the nicotine overload continues, the “stress-induced mitochondrial hyperfusion” (SIMH) system will collapse and lead to irreversible damage to the neural stem cells, leading to eventual brain stem cell death.
Damage or loss of neural stem cell mitochondria accelerates aging and leads to neurodegenerative diseases. Talbot and Zahedi are concerned about the implications of the alterations in mitochondria in the neural stem cells because exposure to nicotine in adolescent and prenatal development can impair cognition, learning, and memory. As mainstream culture embraces, glamorizes, and normalizes electronic cigarette use, the damaging effects of this practice are often overlooked in our most vulnerable and marketed populations.
- Zahedi, Atena, et al. “Mitochondrial Stress Response in Neural Stem Cells Exposed to Electronic Cigarettes.” IScience, vol. 16, 28 June 2019, pp. 250–269., doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2019.05.034.