Physiological anti-inflammatory mechanisms are selected by evolution to effectively control the immune system and can be exploited for the treatment of inflammatory disorders. Recent studies indicate that the vagus nerve (which is the longest of the cranial nerves and innervates most of the peripheral organs) can modulate the immune response and control inflammation through a 'nicotinic anti-inflammatory pathway' dependent on the alpha7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (alpha7nAChR). Nicotine has been used in clinical trials for the treatment of ulcerative colitis, but its clinical applications are limited by its unspecific effects and subsequent toxicity. This article reviews recent advances supporting the therapeutic potential of selective nicotinic agonists in several diseases. Similar to the development of alpha- and beta-agonists for adrenoceptors, selective agonists for alpha7nAChR could represent a promising pharmacological strategy against infectious and inflammatory diseases.
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