Anyone who has attempted to quit smoking will tell you how hard it is. Nicotine is to blame. Nicotine is the chemical responsible for the addictive nature of all tobacco products and some e-cigarette products. While the dangers and health risks of tobacco products are widely known, much less is known about the effects of consuming nicotine alone.
Nicotine is a potentially addictive substance no matter which form is consumed.
FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) are the least harmful form of nicotine, but they are meant for short-term use for people trying to quit smoking.
Any short-term benefits of isolated nicotine on cognitive function are not likely to outweigh the long-term health risks.
In fact, one popular so-called health guru is promoting nicotine products on their website and podcast, claiming the sponsored products help to “boost brain function.” Should you believe the hype?
In this article, we’ll delve into what scientific research shows about the impact of pure nicotine on the brain and body.
What is isolated nicotine?
Isolated nicotine is pure nicotine, made synthetically or separated from the tobacco plant. Isolated nicotine is commonly found in over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products, such as nicotine lozenges, gum, and patches.
NRTs are FDA-approved for short-term use to help people quit smoking. These products provide just enough nicotine exposure to help reduce cravings but without the 7,000 chemicals and toxins found in cigarettes and other tobacco products.
What impact does isolated nicotine have on the brain?
When nicotine enters the brain, it causes a rapid increase in dopamine. Dopamine is a brain chemical associated with feelings of euphoria and satisfaction. Nicotine’s effects on dopamine create a “reward system” associated with nicotine, leaving the user with feelings of pleasure that reinforce the behavior.
Besides dopamine, nicotine influences several other brain functions, including attention, memory, and mood management. However, whether nicotine’s impact is positive or negative depends on a number of individual factors.
Frequent nicotine use changes the way an individual’s brain works, leading to addiction and withdrawal symptoms when the person stops using. In 2010, the United States surgeon general suggested nicotine is as addictive as heroin and cocaine.
What impact does nicotine have on the body?
Beyond its effects on the brain, nicotine causes a variety of physiologic changes throughout the body:
Nicotine can affect the heart and blood, including rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, and increased risk of blood clots.
Nicotine may cause nausea, abdominal pain, and decreased appetite.
Nicotine can increase breathing rate.
Nicotine can alter blood sugar levels and insulin resistance.
Impact of nicotine on developing brain
While conflicting evidence exists regarding the impact of nicotine on the adult brain, scientific research has confirmed negative outcomes of nicotine’s effects on developing brains. Those at risk of long-term damage include children with prenatal exposure and those who begin using nicotine products during adolescent development.
In the short term, teens may be more prone to nicotine addiction than adults, with a quicker onset of addiction and a more rapid development of tolerance and cravings. Additionally, nicotine use during brain development may impact long-term cognitive function, including disturbances to working memory and attention. Further, nicotine exposure during adolescence is associated with a higher risk of developing mental or behavioral disorders in adulthood, including depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit problems.
This is especially concerning since vaping among youth is on the rise. In 2022, more than 2.5 million middle and high school students in the U.S. reported using e-cigarettes—that’s about 1 in 10.
Benefits of isolated nicotine on cognitive function in adults
Researchers have investigated the potential benefits of nicotine on cognitive function. They did not find that nicotine use was associated with long-term cognitive damage in fully-developed adult brains, as reported in adolescents.
However, studies have produced various conflicting results regarding nicotine's effects on cognition. For example, in a study of healthy adults with no nicotine experience, nicotine exposure was shown to increase the speed of completing cognitive tasks but diminished accuracy. In another study, nicotine was found to be a potential therapeutic option for easing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Some research from the 1970s and 1980s suggested that tobacco use boosted human performance in, but the findings were likely due to nicotine use relieving the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Limited research in the 1990s demonstrated small beneficial effects on performance in nonsmoking individuals. Additional research has associated nicotine use with improved cognitive outcomes and attention in adults with certain neuropsychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease. No known studies have demonstrated any long-term benefits of nicotine use.
Risks of isolated nicotine on the adult brain and body
While nicotine possesses some potential benefits as a therapeutic agent in some people, those interested in using nicotine should still consider several critical risks. Although isolated nicotine is less addictive than nicotine in tobacco products, addiction remains a possibility at any dose. If nicotine levels drop or an individual decides to stop using nicotine, they may experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that worsen cognitive function.
Cancer is another potential risk of nicotine use. Some studies connect nicotine and cancer, but not all of these studies considered nicotine separately from tobacco products. Further research is needed to determine if nicotine alone increases the risk of cancer.
In addition, scientists link nicotine with an increased risk of a number of other conditions or adverse side effects, including:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD)
- Peptic ulcer disease
- Coronary artery disease
- High blood pressure
- Weakened immune system
Nicotine is proven to cause short-term and long-term harm. Despite this, isolated nicotine may carry some cognitive benefits in adults. However, the validity of research into isolated nicotine as a beneficial agent remains controversial.
In general, any short-term benefits of isolated nicotine on cognitive function likely do not outweigh the long-term risks of nicotine use. Safer options are available to help boost brain performance, such as getting adequate sleep and eating nutritious foods. Those seeking to improve their cognitive function should discuss these options with a healthcare professional before using nicotine products.
- National Library of Medicine. Short and long term consequences of nicotine exposure during adolescence for prefrontal cortex neuronal network function.
- Journal of Pharmacopuncture. Nicotine addiction: neurobiology and mechanism.
- US Department of Health and Human Services. Nicotine and Parkinson’s disease; implications for therapy.
- National Library of Medicine. Harmful effects of nicotine.
- International Journal of Health Sciences. Nicotine replacement therapy: an overview.
- The Science of the Total Environment. Content of toxic components of cigarette, cigarette smoke vs cigarette butts: A comprehensive systematic review.
- Psychopharmacology. Meta-analysis of the acute effects of nicotine and smoking on human performance.