Before we talk about nicotine as a brain enhancing drug, let’s just get the “elephant in the room” out of the way.
Cigarette smoking is “Public Health Enemy Number 1.” (1)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it causes 480,000 deaths each year in the US or about one in five deaths. (2)
Smoking puts you at increased risk of heart disease, lung disease, numerous kinds of cancer, and death from all causes.
The nicotine in cigarettes is often blamed for the health hazards of smoking and for making cigarettes so addictive.
And yet, quite counterintuitively, nicotine may hold the key for treating a number of brain-related disorders and diseases.
Let’s take an unbiased look at nicotine and the surprising ways it can improve brain function.
What Is Nicotine?
Nicotine is a naturally occurring compound found in the family of plants called the nightshades.
The nightshades include common foods like potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and tobacco.
Nicotine is found in small amounts in foods, but is highly concentrated in tobacco.
People like to smoke tobacco largely because of the effects of nicotine.
Nicotine gives smokers pleasure by increasing their “feel good” neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. (3)
It also enhances memory and learning by increasing the brain chemical acetylcholine.
Paradoxically, nicotine has the potential to act as both a stimulant and a relaxant.
It can make you more alert when you’re tired, and calm you down when you’re anxious.
Cigarette Smoke: More Than Nicotine
Nicotine is often vilified as the source of smoking’s many health hazards, but isolated nicotine exhibits few documented health risks. (4)
According to the American Lung Association, cigarettes contain around 600 ingredients, nicotine is just one of them.
When burned, cigarettes create more than 7,000 chemicals including 70 known carcinogens like cyanide, benzene, formaldehyde, methanol, and ammonia. (5)
When discussing the health implications of smoking, nicotine is often referred to interchangeably with tobacco, but this is an inaccurate oversimplification.
Nicotine Delivery Systems
Cigarette smoke makes an excellent nicotine delivery system.
When inhaled in smoke, nicotine enters the blood stream and crosses the blood-brain barrier in 7 seconds. (6)
Once it enters the brain, nicotine acts on acetylcholine receptors, releasing a slew of mood-altering brain chemicals.
Since the release of the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health in 1964, smoking rates in the United States have dropped by more than half. (7)
Once the health hazards of cigarettes became common knowledge, millions of smokers wanted to quit.
But cigarette smoking is one mankind’s most addictive behaviors.
Nicotine is purported to be one of the most addictive substances on earth — right up there with heroin and cocaine. (8)
So an entire new industry arose — nicotine replacement therapy (NRT).
Nicotine replacement therapies such as patches, gum, lozenges, inhalers, nasal sprays, and, most recently, e-cigarettes were created to help smokers stop smoking.
But NRTs have been a dismal failure.
Only 20% of those who use a nicotine replacement product successfully quit smoking. (9)
Smokers who use nicotine replacements are just as likely to relapse as those who don’t. (10)
Oddly, heavy smokers are twice as likely to relapse if they used a nicotine replacement product. (11)
Nicotine — Not as Addictive as Believed
The general belief is that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on the planet.
But the latest research does not support this. (12)
Animal studies show nicotine to be only mildly addictive. (13)
Acetaldehyde, another chemical found in tobacco smoke, was found to dramatically reinforce the addictive properties of nicotine. (14)
Other chemicals that keep smokers hooked on tobacco include anabasine, nornicotine, anatabine, cotinine, and myosmine.
Once again, nicotine is erroneously blamed for smoking’s addictiveness.
Nicotine for Brain Enhancement
The first clue that nicotine might have positive effects on the brain was the discovery that smoking reduces the risk of Parkinsons’ disease (PD) — a progressive neurological disorder that affects movement. (15)
Current smokers have almost half the risk of developing PD than non-smokers. (16)
This disease is caused by the loss of brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for movement.
Investigative journalist Dan Hurley extensively studied the effects of nicotine on the brain while researching his book Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power.
He learned that nicotine (distinct from tobacco) is a surprisingly safe and effective brain enhancer and potential treatment for neurological disorders including Parkinson’s, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette’s syndrome, and schizophrenia.
When Hurley interviewed Dr. Jennifer Rusted, professor of experimental psychology, she stated that “nicotine is the most reliable cognitive enhancer that we currently have.”
She’s found that, as a brain booster, nicotine significantly outperforms the popular smart drug Provigil.
An analysis of 41 studies on nicotine and cognitive performance concluded that nicotine safely improved fine motor skills, attention, accuracy, response time, short-term memory, and working memory. (17)
Nicotine Research on Brain Disorders
It’s certainly not a coincidence that 50% of smokers have mental health problems. (18)
People with disorders such as depression, ADHD and schizophrenia often self-medicate with cigarettes to improve mood, focus, concentration, and short-term memory. (19, 20, 21)
A study on nicotine and Parkinson’s is currently being sponsored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. (22)
It’s believed that nicotine might protect dopamine-producing neurons in the brain to keep them from dying. So far, nicotine used in this way has been shown to be safe and beneficial.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is an intermediate stage between “normal” age-related mental decline and the diagnosis of dementia.
Nicotine administered via transdermal patch was shown to improve memory, attention, and mental processing in people with MCI with no side effects. (23)
Nicotine shows promise in treating Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies using nicotine administered via patch or IV show positive results in Alzheimer’s patients including memory improvement, increased attention, learning, accuracy, and reaction time. (24, 25, 26)
Low dose nicotine patches, when used on non-smokers, temporarily reduced signs of depression. (27)
Depression is linked to neurotransmitter imbalance and nicotine stimulates the release of mood-elevating neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. (28)
Can Peppers Prevent Parkinson’s?
While nicotine has some brain enhancing properties, the experts aren’t recommending we start smoking or chew nicotine gum to protect our brains from disease or boost brain function.
Researchers will tell you that more studies have to be done.
But meanwhile could eating nicotine-rich foods help?
Here’s a list of foods that naturally contain nicotine: (29)
- peppers (both chili and bell)
- tea (both green and black) (30)
- tomatoes (especially green tomatoes)
Cooking and processing does not seem to destroy nicotine in food since it was found in tomato paste, ketchup, and french fries. (31)
The amount of nicotine in foods is relatively small.
In fact, you’d have to eat 20 pounds of eggplant to get the same amount of nicotine as one cigarette!
So it seems unlikely that you could eat enough for a noticeable brain boost.
However a recent study found that eating foods from the nightshade family is protective against Parkinson’s.
Study participants who ate the most peppers — two to four per week — lowered their risk of PD by 30%. (32)
This was exciting evidence that the nicotine in food can protect against at least one brain disorder.
The Downside of Smoking and the Brain
Before all this good news about nicotine has you running off to buy a pack of cigarettes, there are downsides of smoking and the brain.
People exposed to secondhand smoke score 20% lower on memory tests. (33)
Smoking may increase your risk of dementia and cognitive decline by up to 80%. (34)
Interestingly, male smokers are more likely to experience earlier cognitive decline than non-smokers, but no link has been found between smoking and cognitive decline in women. (35)
Smoking creates free radicals which can cause oxidative damage to delicate brain cells. (36)
Women who smoke during pregnancy put their unborn child at greater risk for ADHD. (37)
A non-nicotine compound in cigarettes called NNK increases neuroinflammation which can lead to brain damage and multiple sclerosis. (38)
And lastly, there’s the gloomy statistic that smoking on average takes 10 years off your life. (39)
Scientists and medical professionals agree that more research is needed and do not recommend self-medicating with nicotine replacement therapies to boost cognitive performance or treat brain disease.
Nicotine as a Brain Enhancer in a Nutshell
The negative health hazards of cigarette smoking are widely known.
Nicotine has been demonized as the reason cigarette smoking is unhealthy and addictive, but recent research shows these connections to be largely untrue.
Nicotine, when examined separately from smoking, is thought to be an excellent and safe brain enhancer.
It boosts brain function in healthy adults and in those with mental health problems.
It shows promise in treating brain disorders including ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
There’s evidence that eating nicotine-rich foods may be protective against at least one brain disorder.
While there is no doubt that students, brain hackers, and desperate seniors are using nicotine replacement products to improve brain function, the experts caution against it unless you’re working with a medical professional.