Experiment by experiment, study by study, the shine of vaping as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes seems to be wearing off.
The latest, courtesy of the University of California, Riverside, finds that e-cigarette usage can cause critical brain cell damage and death. The study points to the effects of e-cig usage as especially perilous to pregnant women and teens.
According to the study, published in June in the journal iScience, nicotine consumption through e-cigarettes leads to “stress-induced mitochondrial hyperfusion.” Also known as SIMH, this condition is a “protective” that neural stem cells will undergo after exposure to nicotine from e-cigs, according to UC-Riverside professor Prue Talbot, the lead researcher.
Atena Zahedi, another researcher on the project, said stem cells are much more vulnerable because they are young and not yet fully formed into the specialized cells that they will become to carry out crucial functions. The flood of nicotine causes the stem cells to let other chemicals and substances in, which can irreparably alter their chemistry or cause cell death.
That damage can quicken the aging process or even cause neurodegenerative diseases, she said. “Even short-term exposure can stress cells in a manner that may lead, with chronic use, to cell death or disease,” Zahedi said.
The team performed their research using Vuse brand e-cigarettes. Together with industry leader JUUL, the brands have faced heavy criticism, and even litigation, for dangerous products that can even explode. They have also come under fire lately for allegedly targeting their products to teenagers.
The UC-Riverside study’s authors take special care to note that SIMH is especially dangerous for teens. One of e-cigarette makers’ favorite themes in their marketing is that vaping keeps a user’s lungs safe from the damaging tar that is in cigarettes. But this study shows that nicotine itself is causing damage, beyond its addictive properties.
“Nicotine exposure during prenatal or adolescent development can affect the brain in multiple ways that may impair memory, learning, and cognition,” Talbot said. “Furthermore, addiction and dependence on nicotine in youth are pressing concerns. It’s worth stressing that it is nicotine that is doing damage to neural stem cells and their mitochondria.”