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Universiteit Leiden

Nicotine and cognitive performance: short-term perks, long-term losses

Nicotine and cognitive performance: short-term perks, long-term losses Picture made by Iris Spruit

Nicotine is automatically associated with smoking and smoking is a terribly bad habit. But how about nicotine on its own? The effect of nicotine on cognitive performance seems to be twofold.

Although everyone is well aware of the detrimental effects of smoking, still around 25% of the Dutch population smokes. I am one of them. Normally, I smoke around 15 cigarettes a day, but when I study for exams, or work on papers with a deadline coming up soon, I notice that I smoke more. During these periods, it almost seems as if smoking a cigarette helps me focus. Is there some truth in this notion?

The acute effect of nicotine on cognition has been studied extensively. A meta-analysis that investigated 41 studies found that nicotine enhances several cognitive functions, but mainly memory and attention. How can nicotine have such a positive effect? In the brain nicotine facilitates the release of several neurotransmitters (chemicals by which brain cells communicate) that are involved in cognitive processing. One of these neurotransmitters is dopamine, which gives the pleasure sensation during smoking. Another neurotransmitter that is affected by nicotine is acetylcholine. The cholinergic system is involved in several cognitive processes. Mainly through its effect on this system, nicotine is thought to enhance cognitive functions, such as attention.

So does this mean that one of the most notorious and addictive substances can actually be good for you? No, this is not the whole story. Although much less is known about the long-term effect of nicotine, long-term exposure to nicotine seems to affect the brain in a different way than short-term exposure. Especially in adolescence, a period in which many start smoking, nicotine seems to have detrimental effects. In this period the brain is still in development, in particular areas that are important for higher cognitive functions, such as the prefrontal cortex. The cholinergic system plays an important role in this cognitive maturation. Smoking cigarettes during adolescence has been associated with lasting cognitive impairments, including impairments of working memory and attention, and reduced prefrontal cortex activation.

In sum, short-term nicotine exposure seems to modulate cognitive functions, such as memory and attention in a positive way. This does, however, not mean that we should all buy nicotine patches or e-cigarettes. Although more research is needed long-term nicotine exposure seems to have detrimental effects on cognitive functions, especially when exposed during adolescence. 

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