The influence of nicotine on the brain
„Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times,“ is a famous quote of the author Mark Twain. For many people it is difficult to quit smoking, since nicotine stimulates the brain and increases processes of perception, attention and memory formation, at least in the short term. The last point in particular is interesting for research and will now be examined in more detail in a project at IfADo, that is funded by the German Research Foundation.
Neuroscientist Min-Fang Kuo, Ph.D., and her team are going to investigate the influence of nicotine receptor activation on neuroplasticity and cognitive functions in young and old subjects with and without nicotine dependence. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt itself to the changing environment and learn something new. Around 90 people will participate in the study. The participants do not need to smoke, but will receive the substance varenicline, which activates the nicotine receptors and has been used clinically to stop smoking. If side effects such as headaches or nausea occur, the participants are provided with medical care. Additionally, placebo will be applied as control condition.
Neuroplasticity is induced and measured by non-invasive brain stimulation, and the learning effect from a motor learning task. While the subjects have to master certain tasks the EEG recording monitor the reaction in the brain, i.e. how fast the brain works, but also which areas work simultaneously. The extent to which smokers and non-smokers or younger and older persons differ from each other, as well as the correlation between physiological and behavioral results, will play a role in the evaluation.
This knowledge could then be used to consider how the ageing processes of the brain can be compensated and to what extent nicotine-containing or similar drugs would be useful in dementia, for example. „This does not mean that smoking is healthy. The nicotine of a cigarette only pushes the brain for a short time, but in combination with tobacco it has severe health consequences,“ reports Kuo. In fact, if someone has stopped smoking, the performance of the brain becomes lower, at least in the short term. How long this negative effect lasts must be investigated in following studies.