Nicotine - An Overview
Nicotine (yes, like from tobacco) may actually have some nootropic benefits.
Although there are some obvious downsides to this substance, like addiction, researchers are now starting to understand its potential benefits for the brain. These include:
According to clinical researchers, there is now a large body of evidence that nicotine can enhance information processing and cognitive function across a number of domains, in smokers AND non-smokers. 25Levin ED, Cauley M, Rezvani AH. Improvement of attentional function with antagonism of nicotinic receptors in female rats, Eur J Pharmacol. 2013
Nicotine works by upregulating nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR) in the brain. This can promote quicker thinking, and increased focus and attention.
It can also stimulate the release of other neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. 26Gerald Valentine, Mehmet Sofuoglu. Cognitive Effects of Nicotine: Recent Progress, Curr Neuropharmacol. 2018
In fact, researchers are currently looking into developing new drugs from nicotine that may be used for ADHD, anxiety, Alzheimers, and other conditions in the future. 27Marty Graham. Researchers Light Up for Nicotine, the Wonder Drug, Wired. 200728Pharmacol Ther. 2013. Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors: from basic science to therapeutics, Hurst R, Rollema H, Bertrand D
What Does Nicotine Do?
There is a strong link between nicotine and mental performance, even among non-smokers.
Although becoming addicted to nicotine may have some risks to cognition (and overall health), some nootropics users claim they can use nicotine occasionally for a mental boost.
The nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) plays a big role in cognitive function.
Research shows that by modulating this system, nicotine can “suppress activity in default-mode network regions and enhance activity in executive control network regions in addition to reducing activation of some task-related regions.”
In other words, that it can help you think more clearly and accomplish tasks more effectively.2dos Santos Coura R, Granon S. Prefrontal neuromodulation by nicotinic receptors for cognitive processes, Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2012 3Sutherland MT, et al. Neurobiological impact of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonists: an activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis of pharmacologic neuroimaging studies, Biol Psychiatry. 2015 4Heishman SJ. What aspects of human performance are truly enhanced by nicotine?, Addiction. 1998
As a specific example of how nicotine can increase performance, multiple studies show that it can improve typing and handwriting speed/accuracy.
Anecdotally, many users say that supplementing with nicotine can improve their ability to get things done.5Tucha O, Lange KW. Effects of nicotine chewing gum on a real-life motor task: a kinematic analysis of handwriting movements in smokers and non-smokers, Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2004 6West RJ, Jarvis MJ. Effects of nicotine on finger tapping rate in non-smokers, Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1986
Improved Attention and ADHD
Nicotine agonizes the nAChR receptor, which researchers believe is closely tied to attention. It can also modulate dopamine receptors, which are frequently less active in those with ADHD.
In fact, there is some preliminary evidence that nicotine can improve symptoms of ADHD in smokers and non-smokers.
One small trial concluded it “can reduce severity of attentional deficit symptoms and produce improvement on an objective computerized attention task.”7Potter AS, Newhouse PA. Acute nicotine improves cognitive deficits in young adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2008 8Levin ED, et al. Nicotine effects on adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Psychopharmacology (Berl). 1996
The nAChR class of substances may be particularly useful for conditions like ADHD because they target so many systems in the brain.
According to current research, chemicals that target multiple neurotransmitters may be more useful than those that are more narrowly focused.
With complicated disorders like ADHD, drugs that work through multible pathways may ultimately be more effective.9Terry AV Jr, Callahan PM, Hernandez CM. Nicotinic ligands as multifunctional agents for the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders, Biochem Pharmacol. 2015 10Jucaite A, et al. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study of α4β 2* nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist AZD1446 (TC-6683) in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2014
Memory and Learning
Nicotine’s effects on the acetylcholine system means that is could have a significant positive effect memory and recall.
According to preliminary research, nAChR agonists like nicotine have the potential to enhance spatial working memory in humans.11Alvin V Terry, Jr, Patrick M Callahan. Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor Ligands, Cognitive Function, and Preclinical Approaches to Drug Discovery, Nicotine Tob Res. 2019
One placebo-controlled 6 month trial found that transdermal nicotine (15 mg/day) improves cognitive test performance, although they do note that more research is needed.12Newhouse P, et al. Nicotine treatment of mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month double-blind pilot clinical trial, Neurology. 2012
In animals, nicotine and related nAChR agonists consistently improved memory in aged rodents, as well as in rodents with pharmacologic-induced impairments and lesions. These animals studies shed light on how this nootropic may work in humans.13Decker MW, et al. ABT-089 [2-methyl-3-(2-(S)-pyrrolidinylmethoxy)pyridine dihydrochloride]: II. A novel cholinergic channel modulator with effects on cognitive performance in rats and monkeys, J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 1997 14Feuerbach D, et al. AQW051, a novel, potent and selective α7 nicotinic ACh receptor partial agonist: pharmacological characterization and phase I evaluation, Br J Pharmacol. 201515Boess FG, et al. Pharmacological and behavioral profile of N-[(3R)-1-azabicyclo[2.2.2]oct-3-yl]-6-chinolincarboxamide (EVP-5141), a novel α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist/serotonin 5-HT3 receptor antagonist, Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2013
Another trial suggests that, in normal rats, acute nicotine enhances acquisition, consolidation and recognition of the information in an object recognition task. 16Puma C, et al. Nicotine improves memory in an object recognition task in rats, Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 1999
An nAChR agonist was shown to improve working memory (immediate and delayed word recall) in elderly volunteers.17Jucaite A, et al. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study of α4β 2* nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist AZD1446 (TC-6683) in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2014
Other preliminary results suggest there’s potential therapeutic value of nAChR activation in amnesic disorders.
There is some limited data that suggests nAChRs like nicotine might have some neuroprotective benefit.
By targeting the acetylcholine system, it may be able to prevent or reverse cognitive deficits. 18Newhouse P, et al. Nicotine treatment of mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month double-blind pilot clinical trial, Neurology. 2012 19Rueter LE, et al. ABT-089: pharmacological properties of a neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist for the potential treatment of cognitive disorders, CNS Drug Rev. 2004
How Nicotine Works In The Brain
Nicotine crosses the blood-brain barrier within seconds and starts working almost immediately.
It functions as a nicotinic acetylcholine (nAChR) agonist. nAChRs regulate and neurotransmitter release to influence multiple physiologic processes including behavior.
In other words it has an effect on several important pathways in the brain, boosting acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate flow.
This can have a wide-ranging effect on cognitive processes across the board.
This holistic effect on brain chemistry could make it useful for improving attention, motivation, performance, mood, and memory, even among non-habitual users. 20Bertrand D, Terry AV Jr. The wonderland of neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, Biochem Pharmacol. 2018 21Brody AL, et al. Ventral striatal dopamine release in response to smoking a regular vs a denicotinized cigarette, Neuropsychopharmacology. 2009
Nicotine can also affect brain connectivity, allowing portions of you brain to communicate better. This could improve mental function. 22Korey P. Wylie, et al. Nicotine increases brain functional network efficiency, Neuroimage. 2012
This nootropic can improve long-term potentiation, a critical factor in learning and memory. 23Fujii S. Acute and chronic nicotine exposure differentially facilitate the induction of LTP Brain Res. 1999
Another benefit nicotine has is on electrical activity in the brain. Imaging studies show that nicotine can increase the levels of Alpha brain waves, which are associated with a relaxed “flow” state.24Domino EF, et al. Tobacco smoking produces widespread dominant brain wave alpha frequency increases, Int J Psychophysiol. 2009
Nicotine Potential Side Effects
Nicotine is usually well tolerated in small doses. Keep in mind we are talking about ONLY nicotine here, not tobacco, which comes with it’s own obvious health problems.
Nicotine side effects can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
Keep in mind that nicotine does have an effect on the dopamine neurotransmitter. Any substance that stimulates the brain’s “reward center” like this will have the potential for addiction or abuse, so be careful if you plan on using it for nootropic purposes.
We recommend taking regular breaks to avoid increasing tolerance. This should be considered more of an “as needed” nootropic than an everyday option.
We strive to bring you the most up to date, research-based information about Nicotine and other nootropics.
Something we missed? Do you use Nicotine? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
About the author:
Erik Levi is a co-founder of HolisticNootropics.com and a certified holistic nutritional therapy practitioner.
As an NTP Erik takes a nutrition first approach to health. He has worked with many different people to help them use nutrition to optimize their quality of life.
Erik believes that mental health is a physiological process and cognitive enhancement is not something that can be achieved by just taking some pills with good Amazon reviews.
Instead, true cognitive enhancement comes with the right balance of nutrients, movement, and gratitude. Erik continues to stay up to date with the most current nootropic and holistic health research and promises to deliver the best solutions possible.
You can check out his personal health blog/podcast/YouTube Channel all under the name Holistic A-Hole.