Brain-Boosting Effects of Isolated Nicotine (new evidence)

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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New research shows that isolated nicotine can be effective for brain enhancement and helpful in treating a number of brain-related disorders.

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Smoking is “Public Health Enemy Number 1.” (1)

According to the US 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 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 the nightshades (Solanaceae).

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.

Once nicotine enters the brain, it acts on acetylcholine receptors, releasing a flood of brain chemicals including the feel-good neurotransmitters 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.

Nicotine — Not as Addictive as Believed

The general belief is that nicotine is highly addictive but not all research supports this.

Other compounds found in tobacco play a role. (4)

Acetaldehyde, another chemical prevalent in tobacco smoke, is known to enhance the addictive properties of nicotine. (5)

Other chemicals that keep smokers hooked on tobacco include anabasine, nornicotine, anatabine, cotinine, and myosmine. (6)

Interestingly, animal studies show nicotine to be only mildly addictive. (7)

Plus, some research indicates that the craving for cigarettes is due more to smoking being a well-ingrained habit rather than a true addiction. (8)

So nicotine alone is almost certainly not totally responsible for smoking’s addictiveness.

Tobacco Smoke Contains More Than Nicotine

Tobacco 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. (9)

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 with nicotine being just one of them. (10)

When burned, cigarettes create more than 7,000 chemicals including 69 known carcinogens like arsenic, lead, benzene, formaldehyde, methanol, and ammonia.

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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 dropped by more than half. (11)

Once the health hazards of smoking became common knowledge, millions of smokers wanted to quit.

But smoking is one of 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. (12)

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 for smoking cessation have been a dismal failure. (13)

Smokers who use nicotine replacements are just as likely to relapse as those who don’t. (14)

But human studies have demonstrated that nicotine replacement therapy shows promise as a cognitive enhancer that bypasses the many negative effects of smoking. (15)

Nicotine Benefits for Brain Enhancement

The first clue that nicotine might have positive effects on the brain was the discovery that smoking reduces the risk of Parkinson’s disease (PD), a progressive neurological disorder that affects movement. (16)

Current smokers have almost half the risk of developing PD than non-smokers. (17)

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 L. Benowitz, MD, isolated nicotine exhibits few documented health risks. (18)

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 (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)
  • Parkinson’s
  • schizophrenia
  • Tourette’s syndrome

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 cognitive performance booster, nicotine significantly eclipses the popular smart drug Provigil.

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Nicotine Research on Brain Disorders

It’s certainly not a coincidence that 50% of smokers have mental health problems. (19)

People with disorders such as depression, ADHD, mild cognitive impairment, and schizophrenia often self-medicate with smoking to improve mood, focus, concentration, and short-term memory. (202122)

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. (23)

A study on nicotine and Parkinson’s is currently being sponsored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. (24)

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 average 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. (25)

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. (262728)

Low-dose nicotine patches, when used on non-smokers, temporarily reduced signs of depression. (29)

Nicotine stimulates the release of a slew of mood-boosting neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, GABA, and glutamate. (30)

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Can Nicotine in Food Provide Brain Benefits?

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.

Until more research is done, could eating nicotine-rich foods help?

Here’s a list of foods that naturally contain nicotine: (31)

  • eggplant
  • peppers (both chili and bell)
  • potatoes
  • tea (both green and black)
  • tomatoes (especially green tomatoes)

Cooking and processing do not seem to destroy nicotine in food — it was found in tomato paste, ketchup, french fries, and instant tea. (32)

However, 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 disease.

Study participants who ate the most peppers, two to four per week, lowered their risk of Parkinson’s by 30%. (33)

This was exciting evidence that the nicotine in food can protect against at least one brain disorder.

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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. (34)

Smoking may increase your risk of dementia and cognitive decline by up to 80%. (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 attention disorders. (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 this gloomy statistic: smoking, on average, takes 10 years off your life. (39)

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. (40)

They can increase heart rate and blood pressure and interact negatively with over 20 medications. (41, 42)

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 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 is thought 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, i.e., Parkinson’s disease.

READ NEXT: Do Brain-Enhancing Drugs Work? Know the Risks, Benefits