Originally published on IEET Articles
In 1560 the French ambassador in Portugal, Jean Nicot de Villemain, sent newly discovered seeds to the French king. These seeds would grow a plant that we today know as tobacco, or more properly Nicotiana Tabacum (named after the ambassador).
Although it would take a while for the hobby of smoking tobacco to catch on in the old world, it was already a popular practice amongst the native inhabitants in the western hemisphere.
Smoking comes in forms that are both “habit” and “ritual” – it is an integral part of many cultures.
This article will provide analysis of tobacco’s most seductive chemical compound, nicotine. We will look at research on the effects of nicotine on the mind, particularly memory. We will discuss the availability of nicotine in different forms, and the subjective experience of these different forms and their effects.
This article will serve as an introductory and demystifying guide to the effects of nicotine on the brain and body.
Lets begin with talking about nicotine and how it relates to brain function.
“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgement in all human affairs.” -Albert Einstein, 1950
“The fact is, Squire, the moment a man takes to a pipe, he becomes a philosopher. It’s the poor man’s friend; it calms the mind, soothes the temper, and makes a man patient under difficulties. It has made more good men, good husbands, kind masters, indulgent fathers, than any other blessed thing on this universal earth.” -”Sam Slick, The Clockmaker”
“A pipe is the fountain of contemplation, the source of pleasure, the companion of the wise; and the man who smokes, thinks like a philosopher and acts like a Samaritan.” -Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton
Nicotine is a compound that is very closely related to a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is, firstly, one of the most significant neurotransmitters that are responsible for memory and learning faculties. Secondly, acetylcholine has a functioning capacity over the immune system as well as a remarkable ability to reduce inflammation in the body, which is correlational to every known disease.
For example, in 2005 a scientific paper showed that inflammation was reduced via what is called the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway, which is a system of processes in the brain that require the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. [1, 5] Nicotine, a typical nicotinic acetylcholine agonist, reduced the process of potentially dangerous inflammation.
Nicotine, as an anti-inflammatory choline agonist, has been used as treatments against both blood poisoning  as well as ulcerative colitis .
Recent studies also find incredible benefits of nicotine on human memory and cognition.
A 2015 Chinese study showed acute nicotine injections into rats increased the neuroprotective effects of BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) as well as reducing and suppressing the brain-deficit effects of LPS (Lipopolysaccharide) .
In 2011, Indian scientists induced an Alzheimer’s-like disease in rats to increase their latency (decrease their ability to learn). After days of nicotine treatments, the rats returned to the level of learning, and reduced latency, of the control group. The scientists suggest that the nicotine interacted with the endogenous cholinergic system, which is influential in neuroplasticity and learning. Thus, nicotine treatments in these rats with AD-like induced disorders showed the astounding ability to regain their lost cognitive faculties. 
In 2012, Canadian scientists compared groups of both smokers and non-smokers. In a double-blind coed study, the scientists used EEG to measure different groups of individuals . Some were given nicotine gum, some a placebo. The EEG was used to measure the working memory of the tests subjects as they completed memory tasks. The results showed that those who were given nicotine treatments via the gum, showed greater cognitive enhancements over the placebo group.
The conclusions were cautious. Although there may be cognitive enhancement via nicotine treatments, this does not discount possible counteracting effects. This is because the underlying causal mechanisms for this enhancement are unclear, and require further study.
The above examples are only a few of the many studies that have been conducted over the past decade that show a causal relation between nicotine and its positive cholinergic effects on memory.
Nicotine’s Varying Forms
Cigarettes vary in size, strength and brand. In regards to nicotine, each cigarette contains an average of 12mg of the compound and the average absorption of nicotine is roughly 0.95mg . Currently cigarettes contain over 4,000 different chemicals, of which 43-69 are carcinogenic. Cigarettes, due to their smallness and off-putting odor, have never appealed to me, and my lack of subjective experience forces me to withhold judgment.
Ah, the grand old stogie. One of the oldest forms of smoking tobacco, the cigar induces images of elitism and high society. The cigar industry has been booming in the last few decades as the number of cigarette smokers decided to look for a less harmful alternative.
Cigar smokers differ from other forms of smokers because they do not habitually inhale the smoke. The purpose of cigar smoking is very different than that of cigarette smoking. The purpose is actually to not get the nicotinic effects; rather they are to enjoy the complex flavor profiles that different cigars possess. In many cases, cigar aficionados will review cigars poorly if they get lightheaded or nauseous from nicotine.
As a regular cigar enjoyer, I have come to a similar conclusion: the enjoyment of a cigar is not in the nicotinic effects that they sometimes induce, but rather to become immersed in the culture of flavors that the industry offers. This doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced particularly potent cigars – I definitely have, but I don’t enjoy them. For me, the nicotinic effects of cigars are either unnoticeable, or overly powerful. The former is always more preferable then the latter.
This is the oldest form of smoking. Pipe smoking is particularly interesting to me because the sub-cultures of pipe smoking are very diverse. Some people enjoy collecting pipes more then they do smoking them. Pipes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes as well as an immense variety of materials. The most common is briarwood due to its extreme density and amazing ability to disperse heat.
The sub-culture of tobacco collecting is also various. Pipe tobacco comes in many forms: from the loose cut, to the flake, to the crumble cake, to the plug. Each of these forms requires different preparation methods. Many of these tobaccos don’t come from the Caribbean area where cigar tobacco is grown. Many of most sought after forms of pipe tobacco come from Turkey and Syria.
Pipes are a classic, distinguishing way to enjoy tobacco, and nicotine. In my own experience, smoking a bowl of pipe tobacco definitely provides a ‘buzz’ that is usually lacking in cigars. This is one of the great divides between pipe and cigar smoking.
Gum & Patches
Nicotine gum and patches are popular ways to wean oneself off the habit of cigarette smoking. The gum typically comes in a lower dose, approximately 2mg of nicotine, as well as a higher dose for more intense smokers, approximately 4mg.
These forms have become popular ways for college students to passively ingest nicotine, gaining the effects but avoiding the harmful carcinogens that accompany burning tobacco.
The billion-dollar industry of ‘vaping’ uses a vaporizing device to inhale nicotine enriched smoke. Vaporizers come in portable forms and tabletop ones. You are can purchase vaporizers that consume dry herbs (raw tobacco leaf), waxes, and eliquid. The substance of choice is put into the bowl or oven of the device and exposed to a high temperature until the vapor of the evaporating moisture is created and thus consumed.
Vaporizers have become a popular ‘smoking’ method because it does not burn the substance, thus creating harmful carcinogens. (There remains a bit of skepticism regarding the devices ability to completely reduce harmful chemicals.)
For this article I purchased two different vaporizers – the Pax 2 dry herb vaporizer  for use with my pipe tobacco, and a pen style eliquid vaporizer. Neither was able to give me the calm and focusing ‘buzz’ that a regular bowl of pipe tobacco would, but it did have a noticeably more potent effect on me in a shorter period of time and with less exposure. I was also surprised by the dry-herb vaporizers ability to preserve much of the tobacco flavor.
This article is not a treatise urging people to continue smoking. It simply explains that nicotine offers potential cognitive enhancements. Consumption of tobacco has been shown in numerous studies to be harmful, and nicotine does pose potential harm if abused. To discount nicotine entirely because it is intimately tied to the dangers of smoking does a disservice to potential future discoveries.
Nicotine’s role in affecting memory is indisputable, however, further study is required to understand comprehensively what exactly is occurring in our bodies when exposed to nicotine.
1. Pavlov V.A. Tracey, K.J. The cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.2005: 19, 493 – 49.
2. Van Westerloo D.J. The vagal immune reflex: a blessing from above. Wien Med Wochenschr 2010, 160/5 – 6: 112 – 117.
3. Rosas-Ballina M., Tracey K.J. Cholinergic control of inflammation. Journal of Internal Medicine 2009: 265; 663-679.
4. Wei, P., Liu, Q., Li, D., Zheng, Q., Zhou, J., & Li, J. (2015). Acute nicotine treatment attenuates lipopolysaccharide-induced cognitive dysfunction by increasing BDNF expression and inhibiting neuroinflammation in the rat hippocampus. Neuroscience Letters, 161-166.
5. Rosas-Ballina, M., & Tracey, K. (n.d.). Cholinergic control of inflammation. Journal of Internal Medicine, 663-679. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2796.2009.02098.x
6. Rangani, R., Upadhya, M., Nakhate, K., Kokare, D., & Subhedar, N. (n.d.). Nicotine evoked improvement in learning and memory is mediated through NPY Y1 receptors in rat model of Alzheimer’s disease. Peptides, 317-328.
7. Fisher, D., Knobelsdorf, A., Jaworska, N., Daniels, R., & Knott, V. (2012). Effects of nicotine on electroencephalographic (EEG) and behavioural measures of visual working memory in non-smokers during a dual-task paradigm. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 494-500.
By: Steven Umbrello – Senior Editor