Nicotine: A Powerful Nootropic?

Smoking kills. It increases the risk of lung cancer, it leads to peripheral vascular diseases and peripheral neuropathy, it causes cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and so on.

But can it make you smarter???

It seems yes, although not the smoking itself but the main neurostimulant in tobacco called nicotine. This addictive alkaloid compound has various effects on our brain, and these effects are the reason many people love to smoke. There is no doubt that tobacco smoking is harmful, but on the other hand, it is no secret that even the best of minds like Churchill and Einstein were heavy smokers. Most people know at least one person who claims that smoking helps him or her to overcome stress, think better, or be creative. Modern research seems to support the beneficial effects of nicotine on the brain.

Nicotine: the natural nootropic

Despite all the negative sentiments surrounding the word nicotine, more and more researchers are calling nicotine a powerful nootropic. Nicotine is abundant in the leaves of the tobacco plant. It has been found to have beneficial effects on memory, cognition, creativity, motivation, and executive functions in healthy subjects. In short, it is a substance that may help healthy individuals to become smarter, and boost their brain power and mental capabilities. Furthermore, clinical trials are indicating that it may have a role to play in the treatment of various neurological conditions. Nicotine seems to work by modulating the release of neurotransmitters through its effect on presynaptic nicotine acetylcholine receptors.

Nicotinic receptors are present in the brain and other organs like adrenal glands, acting as an acetylcholine agonist by stimulating these receptors. Nicotine also affects the reward pathway through dopamine release, which explains the benefits of nicotine in conditions like Parkinson’s disease. Nicotine acts on the brain in a rather sophisticated way. It acts more like a moderator, thus stimulating the brain when a person is feeling tired, while having a calming effect during periods of anxiety. Meanwhile, the effects of nicotine on peripheral receptors such as those in adrenal glands explain its action on the blood vessels and heart.

Thus, nicotine can be called a cognition enhancer that:

  • Improves attention in healthy individuals, helping them to perform a variety of tasks in a better way;
  • Improves short and long-term memory in healthy individuals;
  • Improves attention and performance in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurodegenerative conditions.

With research indicating that nicotine itself is not very addictive, as is evident from the failure of nicotine patches in helping to quit smoking without the use of cognitive behavioral therapy, it is evident that addiction to tobacco smoking cannot be explained by nicotine alone. New research indicates that addiction to smoking may involve other chemical components of tobacco that are involved with the inhibition of monoamine oxidase in the brain.

In fact, it seems that nicotine is quite safe for healthy people when given in the right dose and through the right route. Nicotine patches have been demonstrated to be a safe option.

Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has provided some of the most robust evidence that nicotine improves attention. Scientists allotted a task that demanded high attention to two groups, smokers and non-smokers. The fMRI scans demonstrated significantly higher activity in the brain areas related to the task in those who smoked.

Many studies have shown the role of the hippocampus in memory. Stimulation of nicotinic receptors has a positive effect on memory, while blockade of these receptors results in poorer memory. Various studies support the idea that a low dose nicotine can improve long and short-term memory through its effect on nicotine acetylcholine receptors.

Since nicotine improves memory and cognition, it has been extensively studied in diseases characterized by neurodegeneration and the worsening of mental functions. One such serious ailment is Alzheimer’s disease. Accumulation of amyloid plaques and resulting death of neurons is the prime reason for the progressive loss of memory and cognition in Alzheimer’s. Numerous studies have demonstrated that even a low dose of nicotine can have a beneficial effect on memory, cognition, and attention in those living with Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, some early studies have demonstrated that nicotine may also directly inhibit the formation of amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s.

Apart from being beneficial to cognition, nicotine has also been found useful for Parkinson’s disease, a condition involving motor dysfunction of central origin. The primary cause of Parkinson’s is deficits in the release of dopamine in some regions of the brain. Nicotine seems to have a neuroprotective action as it decreases the symptoms of rigidity and tremor associated with the disease. Thus, nicotine may be used both in the symptomatic and pathological treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

These benefits show that there is a need to understand nicotine better, or even develop safer novel nicotine analogs that have all the benefits of nicotine but don’t cause as much harm. There is also a need to study the use of nicotine in various other health conditions considering that nicotine taken as a medication (in controlled and measured doses) may not be that harmful as smoking tobacco. Thus, it seems that there is some truth to the statement of smokers that smoking helps them to think better.


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Image via RyanMcGuire/Pixabay.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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