Forget what you think you know about nicotine. Most people see nicotine as a vile, fiercely addictive substance that takes a large share of the blame for the multitude of deaths occurring around the world as a result of smoking.
But there’s another side to the story. As well as having medicinal benefits, nicotine has untapped potential as a cognitive enhancer, boosting attention, working memory and more. The problem – which you undoubtedly guessed – is that using nicotine by smoking cigarettes for its cognitive benefits is like mainlining heroin to treat your cough: it might work, but the negatives considerably outweigh the positives.
Nicotine is Not the Bad Guy
The reason for opening with this is because it’s a persistent myth and it offers a hint as to why there’s so much misunderstanding about the risks of nicotine. The simple answer is that it hangs out with a bad crowd.
It’s obviously undeniable that smoking tobacco is a significant cause of cancer and a cacophony of negative health effects. Nicotine, as potentially the most widely-known chemical component in tobacco, is inherently linked to these health impacts in the minds of many people: because it’s believed to be only encountered as part of tobacco smoke, nicotine is assumed to carry a lot of risks.
The problem is that nicotine is just one of about 7,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, and many of the others are carcinogenic and toxic. When taken out of the context of the cigarette smoke, nicotine really isn’t much to worry about at all, which is why nicotine patches, gums and other medicinal products are widely-used and recommended.
In reality, even non-smokers consume nicotine pretty much every day, with trace quantities being present in tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes and cauliflower.
Additionally, nicotine isn’t even solely responsible for the addiction to smoking. It’s one of many “alkaloids” found in tobacco, and adding these to nicotine enhances its addictive properties. In the same way, the monoamine oxidase inhibitors and acetaldehyde found in cigarette smoke have the same effect. Nicotine is addictive, but – as strange as this may sound – it isn’t as addictive as smoking.
The FDA agrees, and may be changing nicotine patch and gum labels as a result. In their words:
“Although any nicotine-containing product is potentially addictive, decades of research and use have shown that [nicotine replacement therapy] products sold [over the counter] do not appear to have significant potential for abuse or dependence.”
The Medicinal Uses of Nicotine
So maybe nicotine isn’t going to give you cancer – and probably carries similarly minimal risks to caffeine when separated from smoke – but that doesn’t mean it’s actually good, does it? Well, there are actually many conditions that could be helped by nicotine, including ulcerative colitis, depression, schizophrenia, ADHD, pain, mild cognitive impairment, Tourette’s, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
The list of conditions possibly helped by nicotine may be surprising, but they’re ultimately a result of its effects in the brain. The best example is the use of nicotine in Parkinson’s disease, which was the first time a potential medical benefit of nicotine was uncovered. In 1966, Harold Kahn – an epidemiologist working for the National Institutes of Health – uncovered a curious fact: non-smokers were about three times more likely to die of Parkinson’s disease as smokers.
In Parkinson’s sufferers, the neurons responsible for releasing dopamine (which you can think of as the brain’s “pleasure” chemical, but it does other stuff too) begin to deteriorate, and a drug called levodopa is used as treatment because it’s a precursor to dopamine. Nicotine also increases dopamine, however, and as well as reducing symptoms in Parkinson’s patients and slowing the progression of the disease, it can even decrease one of the more serious side effects of levodopa itself.
Schizophrenia is another key condition to consider, because about 90 percent of people with schizophrenia smoke. There is debate about the reasons for this, but the idea that they are self-medicating with nicotine is a well-supported one. Smoking reduces the negative symptoms of schizophrenia – such as apathy and lack of motivation, which may be related to deficits in the dopamine system – and could counteract some of the cognitive symptoms of the condition too. These cognitive effects, while very valuable for schizophrenic smokers, may even extend to people not suffering from a condition.
Can Nicotine Improve Cognition?
For healthy adults, potentially the most promising use of nicotine is to improve mental functioning. The reasons behind this are closely tied to the reason nicotine appears to be useful for Alzheimer’s sufferers: the nicotinic system (specifically the acetylcholine receptors that nicotine acts on in the brain) is crucial for maintaining performance on a variety of tasks. Alzheimer’s sufferers have fewer of these receptors, and treatment with nicotine can minimize the effect of this deficit.
For healthy adults, however, the effect still exists. A paper by the British psychologist David M. Warburton entitled “Nicotine as a Cognitive Enhancer” looks at the evidence on the effects of nicotine on attention and memory, suggesting that nicotine helps with various tasks requiring attention. The benefits to memory are often linked to improvements in attention (if you pay attention to something more effectively, then you’re more likely to remember it), but there are also some suggestions of improvements in memory unrelated to attention.