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Tobacco smoking is an addictive behavior that supports nicotine dependence and is an independent risk factor for cancer and other illnesses. Its neurogenetic mechanisms are not fully understood but may act through alterations in the cerebral white matter (WM). We hypothesized that the vertical pleiotropic pathways, where genetic variants influence a trait that in turn influences another trait, link genetic factors, integrity of cerebral WM, and nicotine addiction. We tested this hypothesis using individual genetic factors, WM integrity measured by fractional anisotropy (FA), and nicotine dependence-related smoking phenotypes, including smoking status (SS) and cigarettes per day (CPDs), in a large epidemiological sample collected by the UK Biobank. We performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to identify previously reported loci associated with smoking behavior. Smoking was found to be associated with reduced WM integrity in multiple brain regions. We then evaluated two competing vertical pathways: Genes → WM integrity → Smoking versus Genes → Smoking → WM integrity and a horizontal pleiotropy pathway where genetic factors independently affect both smoking and WM integrity. The causal pathway analysis identified 272 pleiotropic single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) whose effects on SS were mediated by FA, as well as 22 pleiotropic SNPs whose effects on FA were mediated by CPD. These SNPs were mainly located in important susceptibility genes for smoking-induced diseases NCAM1 and IREB2. Our findings revealed the role of cerebral WM in the maintenance of the complex addiction and provided potential genetic targets for future research in examining how changes in WM integrity contribute to the nicotine effects on the brain.

Original publication




Journal article


Front Neurosci

Publication Date





causal inference, mediation analysis, nicotine, pleiotropy, white matter integrity