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A single molecule may be partly to blame for nicotine's addictive allure, a finding that researchers say could lead to potential therapies to help millions of smokers quit a life-threatening habit.

More than 4 million people around the globe -- 440,000 of them Americans -- die from smoking-related causes each year. And the nicotine-laced smoke damages more than just their lungs.

In today's issue of the journal Science, California researchers not only pinpointed a molecule responsible for nicotine addiction; they also created specialized mice to make it easier to search for other molecules affected by nicotine addiction.

If the findings in mice hold true for humans, the work points to a specific target for a new drug to attack, others suggest.

People become dependent on nicotine when it parks in nerve cell receptors designed for the chemical acetylcholine. Once nicotine fills that space, dopamine, a calming brain chemical, is released. By knowing the specific parking place where nicotine can exact a high toll, a drug could be fashioned to fill it.

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