From all of the flavors out there, menthol is probably one of the most easily recognizable and it surrounds us all our lives. From baby powder, toothpaste, cosmetics and aftershaves to the delights of a relaxing tea by the fireplace, menthol clearly has a calming effect on us, and due to its popularity is was the first aroma to be used in a cigarettes, for those wanting to taste something other than tobacco. But the strange fact is that menthol smokers have a much harder time trying to quit than people smoking tobacco and scientists have always wondered why that is. Apparently, the same way that a cayenne pepper’s heat makes our taste buds a lot more sensitive to the flavors in the food, menthol actually tweaks our brain, making it more sensitive to the effects of nicotine.
How exactly does menthol manage to do this? Well, what was just a mystery until now is beginning to take contour with a recent discovery made at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. A research team led by postdoctoral research scholar Brandon Henderson found that exposing lab mice to menthol triggers the development of an increased number of nACh receptors, the parts of the brain susceptible to nicotine.
It appears that the same flavor that can calm a sore throat and that has been introduced in cigarettes back in 1920 is responsible for the fact that only 23 percent of menthol smokers can kick the habit as opposed to almost 50 percent of regular smokers. With more cigarettes smoked, users of both menthol and regular tobacco have an increase in nicotinic receptors in the zones of the brain responsible for reward and motivation. The strange fact is that menthol smokers develop a lot more receptors.
To have a clearer understanding over the whole process, the researchers decided to experiment with two groups of mice. One group was exposed to both nicotine and menthol while the other was exposed to menthol alone. The results showed that even without the nicotine, the minty flavor managed to trigger the appearance of more nicotinic receptors. The increase was even bigger in the area of the brain responsible for addictions, witch noticed a 78 percent boost.
The experiment shows that one of the most loved flavors out there is clearly a much more complex substance that is capable of inducing changes in our brains and alters the way in which we perceive other substances. Clearly the results are still inconclusive and call for deeper research and understanding of this mechanism but if the effect is similar in humans it might explain why menthol smokers find it so hard to quit.