A Stimulant with a Reputation for Trouble

Nicotine replacement therapies (NRT), such as nicotine gum and nicotine lozenges, have been with us for quite a while. Indeed, NRTs were the first pharmacological smoking cessation treatments to gain the approval of Food and Drug Administration Approval [1].

Nicotine use goes back thousands of years and though nicotine is present in most plants of the nightshade family, including potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers, it is tobacco that contains the highest amounts and has therefore served as the focus for human consumption, primarily through smoking.

Prior to FDA approval of the first NRTs in 1984, tobacco was, for all practical purposes, the only game in town in terms of nicotine delivery [2]. Given it had been identified as one of the chief addictive chemicals that had smokers hooked and that smoking had been identified by the World Health Organization as the leading cause of death worldwide, it is no surprise its reputation has been inexplicably linked to the harmfulness of tobacco.

A Public Image Overhaul

In recent years, however, nicotine’s image has been going through something of a renaissance. With the ever-increasing popularity of nootropics, many people have begun to investigate the potential benefits of nicotine when divorced from the traditional delivery system of tobacco.

Nicotine’s new found freedom has seen it thrive in terms of its public reputation. The opportunities for alternative delivery systems that nicotine replacement therapies represent have created options for the use of nicotine without the attendant risks of smoking tobacco. This has given hope to many addicted smokers who have felt powerless in the grip of tobacco’s once merciless monopoly.

Photo by Daoudi Aissa / Unsplash

While nicotine is justifiably recognized as an addictive drug and it bears responsibility for some of the difficulties smokers experience when trying to quit smoking, their addiction is further compounded by chemical reactions caused by the combustion of the tobacco itself. In the process of burning tobacco, not only does the smoker inhale nicotine, but a further approximately 7000 chemicals - many of which are created by the process of pyrolysis [3].

Many of these newly-created chemicals produced are chiefly responsible for the more harmful effects of smoking, such as the increased risks of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and pulmonary diseases.

Furthermore, many of the additives to tobacco generate compounds which make smoking more addictive than the nicotine would by itself. Studies suggest that smoking tobacco inhibits monoamine oxidase in the brain. This increases its addictive nature through a chemical process which causes degradation of the neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline that are involved in addiction. This results in enhancing the addictive nature of nicotine when smoked as compared with nicotine consumed in isolation [4].

From Smoking Cessation to Cognitive Improvement

While the effectiveness of NRTs as a tool for smoking cessation has been well documented, it is in the area of facilitating cognitive improvement that much of nicotine’s public image renaissance has occurred.

Research has been emerging since the 1970s on the potential for nicotine in improving cognitive processing. And since the 1980s, clear empirical evidence has been established showing a number of the cognitive benefits of using nicotine, including: improved attention, increased concentration, and improved memory, to name but a few [5]. Some of these benefits have seen it used in medical treatments for various conditions associated with cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease [6]. It has also garnered much attention as an effective nootropic.

What is a ‘Nootropic’ Exactly?

Put simply, nootropics are compounds that improve and enhance brain function. Also called smart drugs, nootropics are a loose grouping of substances that have been identified as improving a variety of cognitive functions in healthy individuals. Nootropics mark the next stage of health supplement as the focus moves in the culture from maximizing health in the body to a focus that includes maximizing brain power through supplementation.

When we think of the glory days of newspaper journalism, we can easily conjure up a picture of a roomful of chain-smoking journalists hunched over their typewriters, furiously hustling in the midst of the chaos in their endeavor to meet Sisyphean deadlines. You might well imagine clouds of tobacco smoke swirling in the air above their heads, as they bang out copy on their typewriters in an effort to meet perpetually looming deadlines.

Photo by Raw Pixel / Unsplash

Much of this image comes from the movies, but there is no doubt too that there was truth in the cliched image.

Why would that be? Back in the Glory Days of print journalism journalists were under huge pressure to make almost impossible deadlines in an attempt to stay one step ahead of their competitors in the cutthroat business of print journalism. They need to produce their stories under extreme pressure in a noisy environment far from perfect for the writing. Whether consciously or not, many of them benefited from the nootropic properties of the nicotine they were consuming. Undoubtedly, often paying huge costs in terms of their physical health, but there is no doubt the nicotine they so infamously consumed assisted them in their efforts.

How Does Nicotine Work as a Nootropic?

“To my knowledge, nicotine is the most reliable cognitive enhancer that we currently have.” – Jennifer Rusted, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Sussex University, UK [7]

In terms of its effects as a nootropic, nicotine works on the acetylcholine (ACh) receptors in the brain. It stimulates and regulates the release of the neurotransmitters including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These are responsible for its stimulating and mood-elevating effects inducing both relaxation and alertness as well as memory enhancement, anxiety reduction as well as reduction in appetite and pain.

Of course, if you are smart enough to want to improve your cognitive functioning is such ways, you don’t want to do this at the expense of your physical health. Luckily, you can kill the proverbial two birds with one stone and use NRTs, such as nicotine gum and lozenges, to kick the habit and deliver nicotine as a nootropic while avoiding many of the dangers attendant to smoking as outlined above.

It is worth pointing out at this stage, though it is considerably less dangerous in its isolated form than it is when consumed as tobacco, nicotine is associated with some negative effects too, including dizziness, anxiety, increased blood pressure, and increased heart rate [8].

Comparative to smoking however, taking nicotine in the form of lozenges or gum carries a much lower risk of damage to the body. It still does carry some risks and it is the responsibility of each individual to weigh up the variables of their situation to see if NRTs are right for them.

What are the Positive Effects of Nicotine as a Nootropic?

However its effects are dose and frequency dependent and can often be paradoxical. Dr. Neil Grunberg notes that, “[Nicotine is] the only naturally occurring drug that brings you up when you’re down and brings you down when you’re up.” [9]

It is generally considered that higher doses and more frequent use may cause greater relaxation benefits, while lower doses and more infrequent use may be found to be more stimulating [10]. Generally speaking, nicotine exerts its effect over a period of one to two hours. The onset of the effects of nicotine depend on the method of administration and are approximately 10 seconds to 1 minute when inhaled and 2 seconds to 15 seconds when taken orally [11].

Nicotine has been found to enhance performance in a range of domains of cognitive functioning, including attention, working memory, and complex task performance [12]. Let’s take a closer look at some of these areas.

Improved Attention

One of the most interesting of the cognitive improvements attributed to nicotine is that is has been found to improve performance on a wide range of areas broadly related to attention [13], including:

Sustained Attention

In tests of sustained attention nicotine has been shown to have had positive impacts on performance. One classical method to measure sustained attention performance is through vigilance tasks which require the subject to focus on a source or sources of input for extended periods of time. The subject must then detect and respond to changes in input. Over the course of the vigilance test there is, typically, a decline in this detection rate known as vigilance decrement. In tests such as these the beneficial effects of nicotine on the performance of volunteers have been consistently recorded as decreases in reaction times and increases in correct detections are observed [14].

Attentional Switching

In tests of divided attention volunteers must switch their attention between two different sources of information and process the information from both sources. Studies have recorded significant improvements in both visual and auditory detection rates of around 7 percent, consistent with the hypothesis that nicotine improves attention [15].

Selective Attention

Selective attention involves the complex processing of information by selecting relevant information and excluding distractions. The Stroop task (Stroop, 1935) is a common means of testing selective attention capabilities. You may well be familiar with this widely known of psychology experiments. In the Stroop task a volunteer is presented with a sequence of cards with colour words written in coloured ink that does not correspond with the word itself. For example, a card may have the YELLOW printed on it, but it will be written in green ink. The subject is asked to name the colour of the ink rather than the printed word. Several studies have found that nicotine or cigarette smoking has improved performance on the Stroop Test [16].

Photo by Adeolu Eletu / Unsplash

Unraveling the Research

The effects of nicotine as an cognitive-boosting nootropic is quite extensive. However questions have been raised whether or not an individual’s baseline attention level affects the results. The findings of a 2006 study by Poltavski and Peros involving a low attention group and a high attention group of non-smokers suggested that nicotine optimizes performance rather than increases it, and that an individual’s baseline is significant in modulating the effects of nicotine on their cognitive functioning - the higher attention group performed worse on one of the tests [17].

The cognitive-enhancing effects of nicotine use may be responsible for the oft-cited mood-stabilizing effects of nicotine use. Smokers may be self-medicating with nicotine through the dangerous delivery system of cigarette smoking. This sets up a positive reinforcement cycle as their cognitive functioning is enhanced when they smoke. It is thought that the mood enhancing properties of smoking may actually be attributable in part to these cognitive enhancing properties [18]. Nicotine may mitigate detrimental consequences of a stressor by improving attentional focus [19].

An obvious question that may arise in light of the above is whether or not the use of nicotine and its subsequent cognitive enhancing effects are the result of the relieving of withdrawal symptoms in addicts. Research among non-smokers appears to allay these concerns with a 2010 meta-analysis concluding that nicotine enhances performance on tasks that require attention and memory functions; even in the absence of the confounding effects of withdrawal relief [20].

Memory Performance

Perhaps one of the most interesting nootropic effects associated with nicotine consumption is in the area of memory. Nicotine stimulates the nerve cell receptors in the brain by mimicking the neurotransmitter acetylcholine causing increased activity in the system involved in learning, attention, and memory skills.

In one research study at Vanderbilt, a 46% improvement in long term memory was recorded in participants who received 15 mg of nicotine per day [21]. As the number of participants in this study was limited to 67 and the research was carried out over a six month period, it is clear that further studies are required to investigate the link with a wider sample and over a longer period of time. However, initial findings have been very positive in showing the potential of nicotine in improving memory and as a treatment for cognitive decline, specifically as it relates to memory.

Nicotine’s Potential as a Treatment for Neurodegenerative Diseases


It has been noted that rates of smoking among those diagnosed with disorders such as ADHD are approximately twice that of the general population, suggesting that perhaps sufferers of ADHD are attempting to self medicate through nicotine use. Nicotine stimulates the release of various neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine - a chemical which plays a crucial role in ADHD.

With a 42% increase in the number of ADHD diagnoses recorded in the 8 years from 2003 to 2011, it is no surprise that the research community has investigated the effects of nicotine as a potential treatment given its promising results in the area of attention enhancement [22]. With research into nicotine and its effects on ADHD symptoms stretching back to the 1990s, there is mounting evidence that nicotine could be a viable option for the treatment of ADHD, though more research is needed [23].


The positive effects nicotine has on memory may have important implications for Alzheimer sufferers. As Alzheimer’s is marked by the decline of acetylcholine, most of the pharmaceuticals designed for its treatment focus on boosting the neurotransmitter levels in the brain. With nicotine’s chemical similarity to acetylcholine, some researchers believe nicotine could be helpful in protecting the brain as it ages. Initial studies have shown cause for hope that nicotine could be a viable treatment to help shore up memory loss in those displaying the signs of cognitive decline associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia [24].


There has been a long established link to the preventative effects of smoking in regards to the development of Parkinson’s. Several studies suggest somewhere in the region of a 70% reduced risk attributed to smoking.

It is believed that nicotine’s relationship to the production of dopamine plays an important role in its effects on Parkinson’s, as it is a dopamine deficit that has been linked to the decreased motor control that characterizes Parkinson’s. Dr. Steph Cragg of the Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre notes, ““In typical brains, nicotine can stimulate nerve cells to boost dopamine levels. Importantly, the ‘receptors’ that detect and respond to nicotine may allow nerve cells to release dopamine only when it’s needed, which could reduce side effects.” [25] While more research is needed in this area, as most of the research has been conducted on animals, the signs are extremely promising.

The Nicotine Brain Hack

In this article we have touched on the considerable body of research that supports the view that nicotine use enhances cognitive functioning performance in a range of domains including attention, working memory, and complex task performance. That body of research is growing constantly as nicotine receives increasing positive attention that stands in stark contrast to how it has been viewed in previous decades.

The popularity of nootropics has been growing exponentially in recent years as awareness grows of the huge potential of smart drugs to enhance or optimize our cognitive abilities. In the popular culture there has long been an association between the intellectual wizardry of our greatest writers and thinkers and heavy smoking, but as our acknowledgement of the dangers of smoking have become universal in the face of overwhelming evidence, the romantic notions of smoking our way to genius have been replaced with horrific x-rays on the true cost of smoking.

It is becoming increasingly clear based on the ongoing research, as well as generations of anecdotal evidence, that nicotine is an extremely effective nootropic with positive benefits extending from increased alertness, improved memory and concentration, all the way to a potential treatment for devastating neurological diseases [26].

Uncoupled from its unholy alliance with its irredeemable former partner tobacco, the potential for nicotine, isolated and delivered through the benign means of gum and lozenges, is extremely inspiring.


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