Skip to main content

UTEP Study to Examine Effects of Vaping on the Brain and Behavior

Last Updated on November 18, 2020 at 12:00 AM

Originally published November 18, 2020

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

Ian Mendez, Ph.D., UTEP assistant professor of pharmacy, is using a vapor inhalation system to investigate the effects of nicotine vapor exposure on adolescent behavior. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications
Ian Mendez, Ph.D., UTEP assistant professor of pharmacy, is using a vapor inhalation system to investigate the effects of nicotine vapor exposure on adolescent behavior. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

Vaping has been linked to lung disease and deaths, and scientists are racing to learn more about the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes, particularly in teens whose brains are still developing and are more sensitive to the rewarding effects of nicotine products.

“We know that nicotine affects cognitive function,” said Ian Mendez, Ph.D., assistant professor at The University of Texas at El Paso’s School of Pharmacy. “Because you can become physically dependent on nicotine, we’ve seen in studies that humans who are cut off will show signs of withdrawal, as well as some behavioral changes that may not be beneficial, such as impulsive and risky behavior.”

Although promoted by manufacturers as a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes, vaping is not risk-free. The American Cancer Society (ACS) has reported that the aerosol, or vapor, that comes out of an e-cigarette can contain addictive nicotine and other substances that can cause lung disease, heart disease and cancer. More research is needed to better understand the psychobiological consequences of vaping, especially in teenagers.

To that end, Mendez has been developing an animal model that mimics real life exposure to e-cigarettes in order to investigate the effects of nicotine vapor exposure on adolescent behavior. His work is funded from a nearly $340,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Mendez said he plans to examine nicotinic receptor levels in the brain to see how those receptors correlate with making impulsive and risky choices and if those correlations change with repeated nicotine vapor exposure.

“E-cigarette use by adolescents has become a national epidemic,” Mendez said. “People assume e-cigarettes are safer because they have fewer toxins than traditional cigarettes, but they still have nicotine in them. There’s also not a lot of data on how   nicotine vapor affects the brain and behavior, particularly in adolescents who seem to have brains that are more malleable and more sensitive to drugs.”

Sharing Results

The American Cancer Society (ACS) will celebrate the Great American Smokeout on Nov. 19, 2020. As part of its tobacco control and cessation efforts, the ACS has advocated against the use of e-cigarettes by young people since 2018. According to the organization’s position statement on electronic cigarettes, many e-cigarettes sold in the U.S. contain far more nicotine than e-cigarettes sold elsewhere, which increases the risk of addiction and harm to the developing brains of adolescents and young adults.

In UTEP’s new Center for Excellence in Neuroscience Training, Education, and Research (CENTER), Mendez has partnered with Laura E. O’Dell, Ph.D., professor of psychology, on his new research model, which will use a vapor inhalation system from La Jolla Alcohol Research Inc. to provide data on how self-administered nicotine vapor affects the brain.

During the next three years, researchers will measure nicotine metabolite levels in blood plasma following exposure to e-cigarette nicotine vapors and observe withdrawal symptoms. They are particularly interested in studying sex differences in the effects of nicotine vapor.

Once the project is finished, Mendez said other scientists could use this data to support their own nicotine vapor research.

The CENTER in UTEP’s Interdisciplinary Research Building (IDRB) is a collaboration between Mendez, O’Dell and Arshad M. Khan, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences. Led by O’Dell, researchers will work on collaborative projects between pharmacy, psychology and biology on investigating the effects of nicotine vapor and the brain and behavior.

“Collaborative research is important because people bring their unique strengths,” O’Dell said. “The best science comes from well-integrated scientists working at the forefront of their respective disciplines.”

In July 2020, NIDA awarded O’Dell and Mendez a $120,000 supplemental grant to support Felix Matos, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow, who will assist with the CENTER’s different collaborative projects. Matos said Mendez’s vapor inhalation model could help to better understand how nicotine vapor affects the brains of men and women differently.

“Previous research models of nicotine addiction involve the administration of nicotine via drinking water, injections or an osmotic pump,” Matos said. “While these methods have proven successful in enhancing our understanding of the effects of nicotine in our brain, none of these delivery methods model nicotine use in humans.”

Mentoring the Next Generation

Mendez, a first-generation college graduate, grew up in California’s Imperial Valley. He took an aptitude test in high school that recommended he become a biochemical engineer. However, at California State University, San Marcos, Mendez met his mentor, Keith A. Trujillo, Ph.D., a professor in the psychology department, who introduced Mendez to pharmacology. Trujillo also introduced Mendez to O’Dell at a National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse Conference. She, too, would become his mentor.

After earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at California State University, Mendez graduated from Texas A&M University with a doctorate in Experimental Psychology.

Since joining the UTEP School of Pharmacy in 2017, Mendez has paid it forward, encouraging students from backgrounds similar to his to engage in research activities.  He has recruited undergraduate and graduate students from pharmacy, biology and psychology to help with his research.

Priscilla Giner, now a UTEP pharmacy research technician, previously worked with Mendez and O’Dell as an undergraduate research fellow since 2018. She graduated from UTEP with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in May 2020. Giner assisted Mendez in his previous studies, which looked at drug cues, or triggers, in the environment that contribute to a substance abuse relapse.  

“Through my research experience, I have learned about the importance of bridging a gap between basic science and clinical research to better comprehend why certain disparities are more susceptible to drugs of abuse,” Giner said. “Thanks to the excellent guidance from my mentors, I have acquired new skills and more confidence.”

For more information on Ian Mendez’s research, visit ​