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J Immunol. 2011 Sep 1;187(5):2677-87. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.1002711. Epub 2011 Jul 22.

Cytokine-induced alterations of α7 nicotinic receptor in colonic CD4 T cells mediate dichotomous response to nicotine in murine models of Th1/Th17- versus Th2-mediated colitis.

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  • 1Institute for Immunology, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA 92697, USA.


Ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn's disease (CD) are two forms of chronic inflammatory bowel disease. CD4 T cells play a central role in the pathogenesis of both diseases. Smoking affects both UC and CD but with opposite effects, ameliorating UC and worsening CD. We hypothesized that the severity of gut inflammation could be modulated through T cell nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) and that the exact clinical outcome would depend on the repertoire of nAChRs on CD4 T cells mediating each form of colitis. We measured clinical and immunologic outcomes of treating BALB/c mice with oxazolone- and trinitrobenzene sulfonic acid (TNBS)-induced colitides by nicotine. Nicotine attenuated oxazolone colitis, which was associated with an increased percentage of colonic regulatory T cells and a reduction of Th17 cells. TCR stimulation of naive CD4(+)CD62L(+) T cells in the presence of nicotine upregulated expression of Foxp3. In marked contrast, nicotine worsened TNBS colitis, and this was associated with increased Th17 cells among colonic CD4 T cells. Nicotine upregulated IL-10 and inhibited IL-17 production, which could be abolished by exogenous IL-12 that also abolished the nicotine-dependent upregulation of regulatory T cells. The dichotomous action of nicotine resulted from the up- and downregulation of anti-inflammatory α7 nAChR on colonic CD4 T cells induced by cytokines characteristic of the inflammatory milieu in oxazolone (IL-4) and TNBS (IL-12) colitis, respectively. These findings help explain the dichotomous effect of smoking in patients with UC and CD, and they underscore the potential for nicotinergic drugs in regulating colonic inflammation.

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