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Major NIH Grant to Fund Kirshenbaum’s E-cigarette Study

Adapted from Mark Tarnacki’s article. Used with permission.

“E-cigarettes initially were developed as a cessation tool for tobacco dependence, but now it appears they are also a tool for introducing young adults to other tobacco products,” says Ari Kirshenbaum of the Saint Michael’s College Psychology Department faculty, who has received a $365,865 grant from the National Institutes of Health to support his research on the abuse potential of E-cigarettes in young adults.

Ari Kirshenbaum, PhD

“The idea is that we don’t know how much abuse is going to be inspired by these products, so the key thing may be to find out if the E-cigarettes are dependence-producing on their own,” he said, explaining how his work focuses on the psychological consequences of nicotine delivered via electronic cigarettes (E-cigarettes; vaping) such as effects on attention, cognition and emotion.
This is the first NIH grant received by the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Program at Saint Michael’s and will support three years of research in Kirshenbaum’s long-established psychopharmacology laboratory. The research proposed in the grant will involve exposing young adults to small amounts of nicotine via E-cigarettes. In doing so, it will help to reveal the abuse potential of these devices, and also help to further the scientific understanding of what makes nicotine a dependence-producing drug.

Kirshenbaum said young adults are especially vulnerable to E-cigarette abuse because they are commonly seen as healthier, riskless alternatives to other tobacco products, and marketing campaigns by E-cigarette manufacturers specifically target young adults. He says that a disturbing trend shows that young people are being “introduced to nicotine by E-cigarettes and then they graduate to other tobacco products -- and that is not a good situation.”

“Our basic hypothesis is that nicotine results in a myriad of behavioral and psychological effects that contributes to its dependence -- but as of now those effects are rather unclear,” he said, specifically in relation to E-cigarette vaping technology.

“It’s a fine line, because you want to be able to use E-cigarettes as a cessation tool, but need to be careful about how we market it and how it’s available so it doesn’t become an introduction to the tobacco world,” he said. “Today you can go to tobacco store on Church Street and buy E-cigs -- but if it’s really a cessation tool, why not have it be available just at pharmacy with a prescription? So that might be a way to go.”

For many years Kirshenbaum’s research was funded by the Vermont Genetics Network (VGN), which he said is designed to launch scientists toward the more competitive grants such as this latest one from NIH. Kirshenbaum’s recent grant is awarded through the National Institute on Drug Abuse within NIH, which funds less than 11 percent of applications under the Academic Research Enhancement Award program.

Kirshenbaum said that as the first NIH grant for the Saint Michael’s Psychology Department that he is aware of, in a way this represents a milestone – “and with the excellent faculty we have here now, I think we can expect to see more.”

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