Harnessing Nicotine's Power

Nicotine Improves Memory and Concentration -- but How?

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 23, 2002 -- Nicotine improves concentration, attention, and memory -- it's one reason why smokers find it so difficult to kick the habit. Now, researchers are learning more about how nicotine works, hoping to harness its power.

Various studies have confirmed what smokers claim: that smoking increases alertness, makes work more efficient. But how does nicotine work? What happens in the brain?

In this study, 15 smokers -- half of whom were wearing a nicotine patch -- performed a demanding task that required picking out special sequences from a stream of digits. During the task, their brains underwent an MRI scan.

The nicotine patch wearers performed better on the task. They also had increased brain activity in regions linked with attention span when compared with the smokers who had been deprived of nicotine for a couple of hours. The patch wearers had higher energy levels, better focus, and greater happiness.

The placebo -patch wearers performed worse; they also had less activity in the brain regions linked with attention and working memory.

"These data suggest that nicotine improves attention in smokers by enhancing activation in areas traditionally associated with visual attention, arousal, and motor activation," says lead author Elliott Stein, MD, chief of the Neuroimaging Research Branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse-Intramural Research Program.

The study appears in the Oct. 24 issue of the journal Neuron. -->