Nicotine as a Smart Drug

Although science has long been on a quest to find a cognitive enhancer in the form of a pill, the movie Limitless seem to pique the interest in cognitive enhancers for everyone else.  In the movie, Bradley Cooper’s character is a struggling writer who decides to take a pill, called NZT.  The pill immediately turned his life around as he is thereafter able to speak multiple languages and becomes a stock market scion.  Sadly (or not), the reality behind smart drugs (also called nootropics) is a lot less dramatic.  Take for instance, the use of nicotine as a smart drug.

nicotine gum

Nicotine is traditionally juxtaposed with tobacco in conversations.  One usually does not speak of nicotine without mention of cigarettes and the ill effects thereof.  In cigarettes, the only function of nicotine is to act as reinforcer when combined with other chemicals found in cigarettes.  Without nicotine, most tobacco smokers would not have problems kicking the habit, or science theorizes. But beyond it’s purported addictive properties, nicotine by itself does not harbor any of carcinogenic properties that is associated with tobacco nor does it cause any of the other numerous health problems associated with cigarette smoke.

The Science Behind Nicotine as a Cognitive Enhancer

In the past several years, researchers from Europe have published over dozens of studies showing that administration of nicotine improves attention, working memory, and cognitive processing, at least temporarily.

Nicotine is just more than just a substance combined to feed addiction, it is also both a stimulant and a relaxant.  Nicotine is a parasympathomemetic drug. What it does is mimic the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which controls our “rest-and-digest” or “feed-or-breed” response.  When nicotine goes into the body, it causes a release of glucose from the liver and epinephrine (adrenaline) from a portion of the brain called the adrenal medulla.  Nicotine also mimics the action of acetylcholine at the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Aceetylcholine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps in the release and firing of neurons (brain cells).

An early study done in 1992 showed that nicotine improved attention in a wide variety of tasks, improved both immediate and long-term memory, improves attention in patients with Alzheimer’s.  Another study in 2012 showed that nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonists (when nicotine binds to the acetylcholine receptor) can facilitate sensory processing, alertness, attention, learning, and memory.

Nicotine also has the potential to improve prospective memory, which is the ability to perform a planned action or intention at the right time. Examples of prospective memories are things such as remembering to return a Redbox DVD on time, remembering to reply to an e-mail from your supervisor, or remembering to write in your journal before you sleep.

Nicotine and Dopamine

So why are all these improvements in executive functions seen with nicotine? The reason might be that the primary neurotransmitter that nicotine enhances is dopamine, which is a brain chemical responsible for attention, reward-seeking behaviors, addiction, and movement.

A very early study was done in the 1970s that showed that cigarette smoking can protect against Parkinson’s disease.  Yes, the habit that harms essentially every organ of the body protects against Parkinson’s.  However, it has become clear that it is not the cigarette that protects against Parkinson’s—it is the nicotine in the cigarette.  Dopamine as previously stated is responsible for movement in the body; those with Parkinson’s have a dopamine deficiency.  When nicotine binds to the acetylcholine receptor, it stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain; and this may explain the reason why nicotine can provide protection against neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s.

Typical cases of ADHD involve a number of genes that affect and impair dopamine transporters.  As previously stated, dopamine is responsible for modulating attention.  This may be a reason why nicotine can be seen as a possible treatment option for those who have ADHD inattentive-type.  A study published in 2009 looked into the effects of nicotine on both smokers and non-smokers diagnosed with ADHD.  The study showed that nicotine reduced symptoms by 9% and negative moods by 9%, independent of smoking status.

Nicotine and Addiction

It is a widely held belief that nicotine is highly addictive, more so than cocaine.  However, clinical trials have had much difficulty proving this theory.  Nicotine, by itself, has not been shown to be addictive.  A study published in 2007 in the journal Neurophamacology stated that the other ingredients in cigarette are needed to pair with nicotine in order for the stimulant to become an addictive substance.  However, nicotine in and of itself is not quite the reinforcer it is made out to be by popular media.


Some in the scientific community think that nicotine is as good as we have it in terms of a “smart drug.”  Jennifer Rusted, psychology professor at Sussex University said that “[t]he cognitive-enhancing effects of nicotine in the normal population are more robust than you would get with any other agent.  With Provigil, for instance, the evidence for cognitive benefits is nowhere near as strong as it is for nicotine.”

Precise dosage for optimal cognitive performance is still question that scientists have yet to answer.  Dr. Paul Newhouse, director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center stated that the optimal amount of nicotine can improve attention, memory, and speed of processing; however too much nicotine, like many other stimulants, can be a detriment to attention, memory, and processing speed.  So if you want to start using nicotine as a cognitive enhancer, the best thing to do is to go out and buy a patch or gum and try the dosage out for yourself.

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