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 Chemistry's benefits go beyond 'better living'

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Junior Kinder
Junior Kinder


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PostSubject: Chemistry's benefits go beyond 'better living'   Fri Oct 16, 2009 5:30 pm

The old slogan about "better living through chemistry" never quite
captured the whole story about society's debt to the science of
molecules. In some circles the phrase has even been mocked or
perverted, to ridicule the plasticity of modern culture or to celebrate
the abuse of psychedelic drugs. Pollution, weapons and poisons have all
been invoked to paint chemistry as a satanic science.







Defenders of chemistry's good name have always had better sense on
their side, though. Apart from the consumer products and the economic
opportunities in plastics alluded to by Dustin Hoffman's postgraduate
adviser, chemistry provides the medicines for curing disease, the
signaling systems for the brain, the substances for building and
fueling the body, the foundational processes for life itself. It can't
be all bad. But, as with so much of all science, the bad is often mixed in with
the good, as exemplified by nothing more clearly than nicotine. Its
addictive power enslaves millions of people, condemning a substantial
proportion of them to premature death. On the other hand, as freelance
writer Laura Bell points out in this issue , nicotine also
offers substantial benefits, such as improving mental acuity and
alleviating stress. Its popularity is not exactly inexplicable.





Nicotine exerts its influence by stimulating particular proteins in
certain regions of the brain. Those proteins, or "receptor" molecules,
respond naturally to the brain chemical acetylcholine, which is
important for learning and memory and a number of other neural
processes. That's why receptors sensitive to it come in a whole family
of varieties.





Lately
neurochemists have begun to make considerable progress in learning how
nicotine affects some of those receptors, and in understanding how
molecules similar to nicotine might be able to achieve its positive
properties without its ill side effects.So now the search is on for new drugs that can exploit such
understanding to provide better treatments for Alzheimer's disease,
schizophrenia and a passel of other disorders. This endeavor is a
perfect illustration of basic research's essential partnership with
applied medical science, and how the cutting edge of chemical knowledge
can provide insights that are useful in the service of humankind.
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