Tobacco was first cultivated during the early 16th century and since it’s discovery has become one of the most widely used psychoactive drugs in history, during this period, nicotine’s cognitive enhancing effects have been extensively studied. In recent years, a wide variety of more healthy media for the consumption of nicotine have been developed, and consequently, nicotine has become a much more suitable drug for the purpose of cognitive enhancement. Nicotine can now be consumed in the form of gum, topical patches, nasal sprays, sublingual solutions and, most popularly, vaporizers. However even with the advent of such technologies and the elimination of chemical additives, the long term health implications of nicotine itself are not quite clear. This post will serve as a pro/con analysis of using nicotine as a nootropic agent.

It is critical to recognize the distinction between nicotine and tobacco, we are not in any way endorsing tobacco products, the safety of smoking has been extensively researched and has been conclusively proven to be extremely detrimental to one’s health.

Pharmacology of Nicotine

As you are likely aware, nicotine is a central nervous system stimulant, however it also behaves as a relaxant. It acts by causing a release of glucose from the liver and epinephrine from the adrenal medulla, resulting in moderate cognitive stimulation. Nicotine immediately stimulates nicotinic acetylcholine receptors once it reaches the brain, this inadvertently promotes the release of many neurotransmitters including dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, beta-endorphin and acetylcholine (hence it’s synergy with many racetams).

Nootropic Effects of Nicotine

Nicotine has been observed to produce an impressive range of nootropic effects, these include the enhancement of memory, focus, reaction time and problem-solving. Nicotine has also been found to have neuroprotective traits; nicotine (and it’s derivatives) mitigate oxidative stress and the inflammation of tissue in the brain, improving the synaptic plasticity and lifespan of dopaminergic neurons in the process. This is speculated to be the cause of the strong epidemiologic evidence that suggests that people who frequently consume nicotine to be significantly less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than those who do not. Nicotine has also been demonstrated to be particularly effective in treating some of the cognitive impairment associated with schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and neurodegenerative disease.

Adverse Effects of Nicotine

The most popularized danger of chronic nicotine use is the potential cardiovascular toxicity. Nicotine stimulatory effects cause increased heart rate and vasoconstriction, increasing blood pressure and heart contractility. There have also been studies that suggest nicotine can inhibit hippocampal neurogenesis in high doses, which is a process that is critical to learning and the preservation of memory. Nicotine may similarly impair synaptic plasticity in a dose-dependent fashion. Synaptic plasticity refers to the ability of synapses to strengthen or weaken over time, in response to increases or decreases in their activity.

The danger of cardiovascular toxicity is often dismissed as the magnitude of such is, for practical purposes, negligible. Multiple research groups have stated that nicotine is not a significant risk factor for any type of cardiovascular event, and is safe to use even in “high-risk” individuals such as patients with coronary artery disease. The inhibition of neurogenesis however, while there is insufficient evidence to conclusively prove or disprove it, is a factor that should be noted while considering nicotine as an addition to your stack.

Addictive Potential of Nicotine

When evaluating the addictive capacity of nicotine, the distinction from tobacco is important. While the magnitude of smoking addiction can be comparable to opioid addiction, the addictive capacity of nicotine itself is quite small. It is nearly impossible to induce nicotine dependence in animal testing, whereas it is relatively easy to so with tobacco. This is in-part caused by the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) present in tobacco, which have been found to potentiate the addictive capacity of the non-psychoactive alkaloids. Anecdotally, many users of nicotine in the form of gum and patches report the addictive potential to be only marginally higher than that of caffeine.

Overview of the Pros and Cons

The following table details the known benefits.

BenefitsReference
Increases wakefulness, motivation, alertness and creativity.NCBI
Improves attention, memory and fine motor skills.NCBI
Mitigates symptoms of ADHD.NCBI
Acts as a neuroprotectant.NCBI
Prevents and treats a variety of symptoms caused by Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.NCBI
Acts as an anti-inflammatory in the nervous system.NCBI
Acts as a mild pain-killer.NCBI
Decreases suseptibility to Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and other inflammatory bowl diseases.WOL
Assists in weight and insulin control.NCBI
Increases the rate of nervous system tissue repair.NCBI
Mitigates symptoms of schizophrenia.NCBI
Mitigates symptoms of Tourette's syndrome.NCBI

The following table details the known and possible risks.

RisksReference
Causes cardiovascular constriction.NCBI
It's addictive and can lead to both physiological and psychological dependence with extended use and high doses.NCBI
Can marginally increase the rate of existing tumor growth.NCBI
Extended use can impair prefrontal cortex development in adolescent users.NCBI
It's possible that it can impair neurogenesis in the hippocampus.NCBI

Conclusion

Nicotine can be an extremely effective cognitive enhancer when used responsibly, however much like many potent nootropics, there are drawbacks of daily or frequent supplementation and should ideally be avoided. While the more serious adverse effects of nicotine are limited the development of adolescents, the risk of addiction still exists. Effectively avoiding physiological dependence would entail limiting one’s consumption (obviously) and confining oneself to patches, gum or sublinguals as, while it is uncommon, the transition from vaping to smoking does occur, and much more often at that than the aforementioned media of consumption.

Side Note(s) on Vaporizers: Vaping doesn’t pose a substantial risk to respiratory health however it is considered to be less healthy than oral, nasal and topical routes of administration. If you are plan on (or are already) using a vape, it is highly recommend that you purchase a high-quality atomizer as cheaper ones are much more prone to burning the wicking material and expelling toxic byproducts. Seriously, stay away from cheap vaping hardware, especially pen-style vaporizers.

References