New research shows that isolated nicotine can enhance brain function and may be helpful in treating a number of brain-related disorders.
Smoking is unquestionably a health disaster.
Smoking puts you at increased risk of heart disease, lung disease, numerous kinds of cancer, and death from all causes.
The nicotine in tobacco is often singled out as the reason for the health hazards of smoking and for making tobacco so addictive.
Yet, counterintuitively, new evidence shows that isolated nicotine may be helpful for treating a number of brain-related disorders and diseases.
What Is Nicotine?
Nicotine is a naturally occurring compound found in the family of plants called nightshades (Solanaceae).
The nightshades include common foods like potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, bell peppers, and chili peppers.
Nicotine occurs in small amounts in foods, but is highly concentrated in tobacco.
People like to smoke tobacco largely because of the effects of nicotine.
Once nicotine enters the brain, it acts on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, releasing a flood of brain chemicals, including the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) , and glutamate.
It enhances memory and learning by increasing the level of 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.
Nicotine — Not as Addictive as Believed
The general belief is that nicotine is highly addictive, but not all research supports this.
A multitude of other compounds found in tobacco play a role in its addictiveness.
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Other chemicals that keep smokers hooked on tobacco include anabasine, nornicotine, anatabine, cotinine, and myosmine.
Animal studies show nicotine to be only mildly addictive.
Some research indicates that the craving for cigarettes is due more to smoking being a well-ingrained habit rather than a true addiction.
And perhaps most compelling is that nicotine has been used in cognitive research for over 30 years.
" An analysis of 41 studies concluded that nicotine safely improved fine motor skills, attention, accuracy, response time, short-term memory, and working memory.
Study participants given nicotine via transdermal patch to treat mild memory loss do not get addicted, nor do they experience withdrawal when studies are over.
This body of evidence makes it clear that nicotine isn’t the only culprit in smoking’s addictiveness.
Tobacco Smoke Contains More Than Nicotine
Tobacco smoke makes an excellent nicotine delivery system.
When inhaled in smoke, nicotine quickly enters the bloodstream and crosses the blood-brain barrier in just 7 seconds.
Nicotine is often vilified as the sole, or main, source of smoking’s many health hazards, but this is a gross oversimplification.
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 69 known carcinogens — among them are arsenic, lead, benzene, and formaldehyde.
Nicotine Replacement Therapies
Since the release of the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health in 1964, smoking rates in the United States have declined dramatically.
Once the health hazards of smoking became common knowledge, millions of smokers wanted to quit.
But quitting can be really hard.
In fact, it’s been said to be as hard to quit as heroin or cocaine.
So an entire new industry arose — nicotine replacement therapy (NRT).
Nicotine replacement products such as patches, gum, lozenges, inhalers, nasal sprays, and, most recently, e-cigarettes were created to help smokers stop smoking.
But NRTs for smoking cessation have been a dismal failure.
Smokers who use nicotine replacements are just as likely to relapse as those who don’t.
But it turns out that there may be an even better use for nicotine replacement products.
Nicotine replacement therapy shows promise as a safe and effective cognitive enhancer that bypasses the many negative effects of smoking.
The Benefits of Nicotine for Brain Enhancement
The first clue that nicotine exerts positive effects on the brain was the discovery that smoking reduces the risk of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder that affects movement.
Smokers are half as likely to develop Parkinson’s than non-smokers.
This disease is caused by the loss of brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine which is responsible for movement.
According to world-renowned nicotine expert Neil Benowitz, MD, isolated nicotine exhibits few documented health risks.
In his book Nicotine Safety and Toxicity (Oxford University Press), he points out that nicotine, in fact, is undergoing evaluation as a possible treatment for numerous medical and neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, attention deficit disorder, ulcerative colitis, and sleep apnea.
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 (as distinct from tobacco) is a surprisingly safe and effective brain enhancer and potential treatment for neurological disorders, including:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
- Tourette’s syndrome
When Hurley interviewed dementia researcher Jennifer Rusted, PhD, she stated that “nicotine is the most reliable cognitive enhancer that we currently have.”
She’s found nicotine to be a significantly better cognitive performance booster than the popular smart drug Provigil (modafinil).
Nicotine Research on Brain Disorders
It may not be a coincidence that 50% of smokers have mental health problems.
An analysis of 41 studies concluded that nicotine safely improved fine motor skills, attention, accuracy, response time, short-term memory, and working memory.
It’s suspected that nicotine might protect dopamine-producing neurons in the brain, keeping 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 average age-related mental decline and the diagnosis of dementia.
Nicotine administered via transdermal patch has been shown to improve memory, attention, and mental processing in people with MCI with no side effects.
Nicotine also shows promise in treating Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies using nicotine administered via patch or IV have shown positive results in Alzheimer’s patients, including improvements in short-term verbal memory, attention, reaction time, learning, and accuracy.
Currently, the US National Institutes of Health, in conjunction with leading universities, is running a clinical trial on the effects of nicotine called the MIND (Memory Improvement through Nicotine Dosing) Study.
The MIND Study is the largest and longest-running study aiming to show whether nicotine can improve memory loss.
Besides improving memory, low-dose nicotine patches have been found to temporarily reduce signs of depression.
This makes sense when you consider that nicotine stimulates the release of a slew of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, GABA, and glutamate.
Can Nicotine in Food Provide Brain Benefits?
While nicotine clearly has some brain-enhancing properties, most experts aren’t ready to recommend nicotine.
Until more research is done, could eating nicotine-rich foods help?
Here’s a list of foods that naturally contain nicotine:
- peppers (both chili and bell peppers)
- tea (both green and black tea)
- tomatoes (especially green tomatoes)
Cooking and processing do not seem to destroy nicotine in food; it’s been found in tomato sauce and paste, ketchup, French fries, and instant tea.
However, the amount of nicotine in foods is relatively very 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, one study found that eating foods from the nightshade family is protective against Parkinson’s disease.
Study participants who ate the most peppers, two to four per week, lowered their risk of Parkinson’s by 30%.
This was exciting evidence that the nicotine in food can provide some protection for at least one brain disorder.
The Negative Impact of Smoking on the Brain
To re-emphasize the difference between isolated nicotine and the nicotine found in tobacco smoke, let’s look at the negative impact of smoking on the brain.
People exposed to secondhand smoke score 20% lower on memory tests.
Smoking may increase the risk of dementia and cognitive decline by up to 80%.
Smoking creates free radicals which can cause oxidative damage to delicate brain cells.
Women who smoke during pregnancy put their unborn child at greater risk for attention disorders.
A carcinogenic compound in cigarettes called NNK increases neuroinflammation which can lead to brain damage and multiple sclerosis.
And lastly, there’s this sobering statistic: smoking, on average, reduces your life expectancy by 8-16 years.
Keep in mind that nicotine does not cause the diseases linked to smoking; it’s the thousands of other chemicals in cigarettes that do.
Nicotine Side Effects and Interactions
Scientists and medical professionals universally agree that more research on the benefits of nicotine is needed.
They do not recommend self-medicating with nicotine replacement therapies to boost cognitive performance or treat brain disease.
While nicotine replacement therapy is considered much safer and less addictive than smoking, NRTs can have some unpleasant side effects, most commonly mouth and throat irritation, nausea, and headache.
Note: If you decide to try nicotine replacement therapy for any reason, it’s important that you talk to your doctor first.
Benefits of Nicotine as a Brain Enhancer: Take the Next Step
The health hazards of smoking are widely known.
Nicotine has often been singled out as the reason that tobacco smoking is both unhealthy and addictive, but some research indicates that these connections are not as strong as we’ve been led to believe.
Contrary to popular belief, nicotine in its isolated form has been found to be a reliable and safe brain enhancer.
It boosts brain function in healthy adults and in those with mental health problems.
And, it shows promise in treating brain disorders, including ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
There’s also evidence that eating nicotine-rich foods may be protective against at least one brain disorder, Parkinson’s disease.
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