New research shows that isolated nicotine can be effective for brain enhancement and helpful in treating a number of brain-related disorders.
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 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.
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.
Tobacco Smoke: More Than Nicotine
Nicotine is often vilified as the sole, or main, 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 Replacement Therapies for Brain Enhancement
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. (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 smoking became common knowledge, millions of smokers wanted to quit.
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But 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. (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 use a nicotine replacement product. (11)
Nicotine — Not as Addictive as Believed
The general belief is that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances known.
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.
It is not solely nicotine that is responsible for smoking’s addictiveness.
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 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)
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Nicotine Research on Brain Disorders
It’s certainly not a coincidence that 50% of smokers have mental health problems. (18)
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.
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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. (23)
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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?
- peppers (both chili and bell)
- tea (both green and black)
- tomatoes (especially green tomatoes)
Cooking and processing do 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 Negative Impact of Smoking on the Brain
To re-emphasize the difference between isolated nicotine and the nicotine found in processed tobacco, let’s look at the negative impact of smoking on 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)
Though male smokers are more likely to experience earlier cognitive decline than non-smokers, interestingly, 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 Benefits as a Brain Enhancer: The Bottom Line
The health hazards of smoking are widely known.
Nicotine has often been singled out as the reason tobacco smoking is unhealthy and addictive, but recent research shows these connections to be largely untrue.
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.
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 it is possible 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.