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Most of us are at least relatively aware of how nicotine affects the body. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about its impact on the brain. In this article, we will discuss how nicotine interacts with this vital organ.
Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances in the world. It is also the most frequently used drug.
What is nicotine?
First of all, the most important thing to understand about nicotine is that it is a critical ingredient in tobacco; in cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and in dry and wet tobacco.
Nicotine is a nitrogen-producing compound that is synthetically extracted from the Nicotiana tabacum plant. Although this plant is part of the nightshade family (eg aubergines, red peppers, tomatoes), it does not have much in common with its relatives. That is, it offers no real health benefits.
Why do cigarettes include nicotine? Because nicotine is highly addictive. According to the US Office of General Surgery, nicotine is just as addictive as cocaine and heroin. In other words, it is nicotine that causes tobacco dependence. Tobacco, as we all well know, can cause deadly cancers and other serious medical complications.
Nicotine also stimulates the bodily processes that create the addiction that users experience. Related, the progressive effects of nicotine use on the body equate it with alcohol and cocaine. As is the case with these medications, nicotine produces a tolerance effect in the body, requiring the user to consume more of the chemical to experience the same "pleasure."
TOBACCO USER STATISTICS AND TRENDS
According to a study published in the journal Addict Health, nicotine constitutes approximately:
- 3.8 percent of the tobacco weight in pipe tobacco
- 1.8 percent of the weight of tobacco in household cigarettes
- 1.2 percent of the weight of tobacco in imported cigarettes
Scientists estimate that the nicotine content in a can of tobacco is the equivalent of about 80 cigarettes or four packs.
Additionally, the researchers found "no significant difference" in nicotine weight between regular cigarettes and light cigarettes (eg, Marlboros vs. Marlboro Lights).
TOBACCO USE STATISTICS
Due to the highly addictive nature of nicotine, quitting tobacco in any form is very difficult. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO):
- Around 1 billion people around the world smoke cigarettes.
- Tobacco use is responsible for approximately 8 million deaths per year. 1.2 million were nonsmokers who succumbed to the effects of secondhand smoke.
- Eighty percent of the world's smokers, or 1.1 billion people, live in low- or middle-income countries.
- Tobacco use kills about half of its users.
- Tobacco smoke consists of more than 7,000 chemicals.
According to an article published by LiveScience, men dominate the ranks of smokers. Here are a couple of statistics:
- More than 8 in ten smokers are men.
- Research shows a decrease in the percentage of smokers worldwide (35 to 25 percent for men and 8 to 5 percent for women). But population growth (5.3 billion in 1990 to 7.2 billion in 2015) negates this proportional decline, which means that more people are smoking than before.
Nicotine is primarily a psychoactive substance, which means that it affects the mind and mental processes. In the next section, we will discuss the effects of this chemical on the brain.
THE EFFECTS OF NICOTINE ON THE BRAIN
“Every drug of abuse, including nicotine, releases dopamine, which makes it pleasant to use. And when you quit smoking, you have a deficiency in dopamine release, causing a state of dysphoria - you feel anxious or depressed. ”~ Dr. Neil Benowitz (Source)
After a user inhales tobacco, it takes just eight seconds to reach the human brain. The immediate results are an increase in blood pressure and heart rate and increased vigilance.
In the long term, nicotine causes several biological changes in the brain, particularly in the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) acetylcholine and dopamine.
However, as we will see, the use of this substance is also linked to better performance in many areas.
NICOTINE AND ACETYLCHOLINE
Nicotine causes disruption of the normal functioning of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine plays a role in numerous cognitive functions, such as alertness, learning, and memory. The physiological functions of acetylcholine include dilation of blood vessels, regulation of heart rate, muscle contraction, muscle movement, and breathing.
Due to the structural similarities between nicotine and acetylcholine, the brain detects the presence of the former for that of the latter. As a result, the body signals a decrease in acetylcholine production and requires nicotine to resume proper function.
In essence, this product “takes over” acetylcholine, despite not having the ability to promote the latter's role in the brain. Simply put, the brain requires (read: addicted to) nicotine to function properly.
One reason it's hard to quit is that nicotine disrupts acetylcholine receptors. If we could somehow zoom in on the miniscule gap between neurons in smokers, we'd see something surprising. When neurotransmitters pass from one brain cell to another, acetylcholine receptors are absent.
The would-be quitter has two options to "feel normal": (1) resume smoking, or (2) wait and deal with withdrawal symptoms.
NICOTINE AND DOPAMINE
Another reason quitting smoking is so difficult is that nicotine literally rewards the brain. The chemical actively produces feelings of pleasure by creating an increase in the neurotransmitter dopamine. Also, nicotine atrophies an enzyme reaction in the brain that metabolizes dopamine.
The result is a dopamine system (the apparatus that produces dopamine) indirectly and artificially increases dopamine levels. The smoker unconsciously associates the act of smoking with spikes in pleasant feelings.
When smokers don't get that nicotine hit regularly, the limbic system goes through a loop. An erratic limbic system manifests as mood swings, including anxiety, depression, and irritability.
NICOTINE AS NOOTROPIC
A nootropic is a drug used to improve cognitive performance. Caffeine is a nootropic, just like nicotine.
In a meta-analysis of 41 studies published in the journal Psychopharmacology, researchers confirmed what many people already knew: that nicotine improves brain performance. The analysis linked tobacco use and “significant positive effects” in six areas of cognitive performance:
- Alert attention: become aware of the environment around you.
- Directed attention: the voluntary movement of attention to a specific stimulus.
- Fine motor skills: perform intricate movements with the hands, fingers, feet, toes, and wrist.
- Response time: the amount of time required to react to a sudden stimulus or change in environment
- Short-term episodic memory: short-term retrieval of data, events or facts at will.
There is some evidence that nicotine could serve as a viable treatment option for people with cognitive impairment medical conditions.
In a preliminary study published in Neurology, researchers tested the efficacy and safety of transdermal patches (applied through the skin) in 34 patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Compared to the placebo group, the nicotine group demonstrated "a significant improvement in attention, memory, and psychomotor speed."
Promisingly, the safety and tolerability measures for the transdermal nicotine product were "excellent."