Sci + Society,
Smart Drugs,

#146: Nicotine: Pure Evil or Brain Fuel?

September 16, 2016

What comes to mind when you think of nicotine?  For many people, it’s dirty smokers and lung cancer.

But as Dr. Neil Grunberg, Professor of Medical and Clinical Psychology at the Uniformed Services University, explained to us way back in Episode 22, if you uncouple nicotine from tobacco, it’s actually a pretty darn powerful cognitive enhancer.

In fact, nicotine is only one of between 500 – 700 chemicals in tobacco (which turn into more than 7,000 when tobacco is smoked).  So, before we get to the meat of the matter, let’s make one thing clear:  nicotine is not synonymous with tobacco.  And don’t smoke cigarettes – ever.

Nicotine as a Smart Drug

Nicotine is a very unusual drug – neither straight stimulant nor straight relaxant.  It keeps you alert when you’re tired, but is calming when you’re stressed.

It increases focus and alertness, helps sustain attention, and decreases distractibility.  It also controls hunger and reduces pain.  Researchers are even looking into therapeutic uses for nicotine in the fight against dementia and Alzheimer’s.

For more on taking nicotine as a smart drug, download our guide to getting started with nicotine.  Just enter your email address in bottom right corner of this page and we’ll hook you up.

Better Than Caffeine?

Let’s take the two most popular drugs in the world:  caffeine and nicotine.  If you need to get alert, should you drink a cup of coffee or take some nicotine?

Well, both are stimulants and will make you feel more alert and focused. Caffeine is a straight-forward stimulant — it stimulates you.  Nicotine, on the other hand, might be a better call if you’re stressed and tired, since it will wake you up, but also help calm you down.

But that’s not the only consideration.  The potential for addiction (“addiction liability” in official jargon) of caffeine and nicotine are hugely different.  Only about 15-20% of people will become physiologically addicted to caffeine.

Remember, that’s different than just relying on caffeine to get going in the morning or to stay up late.  Addiction in this sense means that you must have the substance to maintain normal physiological functioning.

Nicotine is much more addictive:  about 80-85% of people will become addicted to nicotine.  For comparison, that number is 50-60% for heroin.  So yeah, you probably will become addicted to nicotine if you take it regularly.  Anyone who’s tried to quit smoking knows just how addictive nicotine is.

But Is It Worth It?

There are two big concerns with taking nicotine:  addiction and vascular constriction.


There’s no way around it:  nicotine is really addictive.  And once you become addicted, getting un-addicted is no walk in the park.  Your body will have begun to need nicotine to functional normally, so expect plenty of withdrawals and other unpleasantries.

Vascular Constriction

The benefits of nicotine are short-term, but the downsides are long-term.  Regular use of nicotine causes your blood vessels to constrict, causing heart problems.

If you’re young, Dr. Grunberg does not recommend regularly taking nicotine.  He doesn’t think the value is high enough compared to the potential danger to your heart over the decades.  That said, we don’t know how many years of nicotine exposure it takes to start negatively impacting your heart.  So if you’re in your 60s or 70s, the balance might tip the other way.

It’s up to you to weigh the potential risks.

Full disclosure:  Jesse does use nicotine patches, but not daily.

Could Nicotine Be Non-Addictive?

Nicotine works by binding to nicotinic acetylcholinergic receptors in the brain.  It turns out that there are actually multiple types of nicotinic receptors, some linked to the addictive quality of nicotine, and other to the other – calming, stimulating, appetite-controlling – effects of nicotine.

This discovery means that we could potentially create synthetic analogues that stimulate some receptors and not the addiction-related ones.  So we could get the benefits of nicotine without the potential for addiction.  That would be a remarkable drug, wouldn’t it?

PS: Our weekly Brain Breakfast has a high potential for addiction, but is completely safe.

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:31

    Nicotine - Part 2

  • 00:01:47

    This Week in Neuroscience: Pollution particles 'get into brain'

  • 00:05:35

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:07:43

    Next #AxonChat - Wednesday, September 28 at 8pm Eastern Time with Dominic D’Agostino

  • 00:08:33

    Re-introduction to Neil Grunberg

  • 00:10:23

    What else does nicotine do?

  • 00:12:11

    The dangers of tobacco have little to do with nicotine

  • 00:13:23

    Nicotine: addictive, not evil

  • 00:13:45

    The correlation between various routes to administration and addiction

  • 00:19:22

    Tolerance increase due to exposure

  • 00:21:40

    Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and designer drugs

  • 00:28:53

    Are there long-term upsides or downsides to nicotine use?

  • 00:30:25

    A cost-benefit analysis for using nicotine

  • 00:32:59

    Buying a new... heart?

  • 00:34:46

    Staying alert into your 90s

  • 00:35:42

    A future addiction episode

  • 00:36:26

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Compulsive drinking in rats stopped cold by flipping neurons like switches


  1. Deane Alban says:

    Interestingly, animal studies show nicotine to be only mildly addictive.

  2. Bill Carlin says:

    If you have the opportunity to do follow-up questions, I have a few.

    I use sublingual Nicorette 2mg lozenges. The onset of effect is much quicker than waiting on a night shift war-shot of caffeine and I have found that it performs as a caffeine “primer” that provides a lift that is carried forward by the caffeine. Is this shown by science that nicotine will facilitate other stimulants or dopamine boosters?

    I have noticed different effects that vary with work load and systemic hydration which makes me curious about how nicotine is metabolized, its half-life and variables affecting them.

    At first I was skeptical that I could use a 2mg dose for cognitive improvement because of a history of smoking any tobacco product that would burn (I quit in 1981) and suspecting that, if that tolerance was preserved, I would need a Nicorette lozenge the size of a livestock salt lick. It turned out I would feel an effect before the entire lozenge would dissolve and have since cut them in half.

    My specific application is un-coupling physical and mental fatigue that started with Modafinil prescribed for “shift workers sleep disorder”. When I have a physically tough night that often is accompanied with mild dehydration, my mental clarity isn’t following along, circling the drain, which means I can still get my butt kicked but have the mental clarity to avoid getting clumsy.

    Is there a threshold for “addiction”? I can stop using it at this level and feel no compelling reason to return to it if there isn’t any performance incentive. I went through a period where I caught myself taking it as a stress response but turned that around without any rise in tolerance. Work isn’t all sweaty physical punishment and also features an office environment and I have noticed if I am using it to elevate focus for detailed work, I am more sensitive to it. If I am riding a dopamine push to engage in something complex, 1mg makes me feel “wired” and I am better off with using caffeine exclusively. What’s up with that? Is there some kind of neurotransmitter hierarchy or competition that I should be aware of or possibly exploit?

    1. Michelle Silbernagel says:

      Hi Bill,

      Dr. Grunberg kindly responded to your questions!
      Regarding your comment that nicotine works well as a caffeine primer and whether science has shown that nicotine boosts the effects of other stimulants or dopamine “supporters.”

      “I cannot think of any controlled experiments that have directly tested whether nicotine has an additive or a potentiating (more than additive) effect when other stimulants or DA “supporters” are presented. What may be relevant is the observation that nicotine, unlike other stimulants, brings you up when you are down and down when you’re up. That is, nicotine has the unusual actions of acting as a stimulant when “needed” and as a “depressant” when needed. The interesting question also makes me think about the effects of the inverted U-shaped function that relates arousal to performance and hedonic responses — a fascinating phenomenon that was reported by Yerkes and Dodson in 1908 (hence, it is called the Yerkes-Dodson curve). This relationship comes to mind in response to the listener question because it would suggest that nicotine plus other stimulants would not boost nicotine’s activating effects; instead, it would likely decrease its effects as one “moves” to the right on the inverted U-shaped function. Considering that many natural behaviors (e.g., aroused mood) also are accompanied by increased DA release, a movement to the right on the inverted U-curve which would decrease arousal if starting from an aroused state may, in fact, help to explain why nicotine — usually classified as a stimulant — brings you down when you’re up.”

      Regarding your observation that you are more sensitive to nicotine if in a slightly “stressed” cognitive state — if there are other variables involved in the metabolism of nicotine that might be contributing to this heightened sensitivity and if there is some sort of neurotransmitter hierarchy or competition that could inform his use of the substance.

      “This self-observation may reflect an increased attention when under stress — a hypervigilance that is part of a natural survival response. This heightened vigilance may explain why one may become more sensitive to nicotine in this type of situation. Alternatively, under stress the body acidifies urine which, in turn, is associated with a greater elimination of nicotine from the body because less is reabsorbed into the body as nicotine passes through the kidneys. This acidification and greater elimination of nicotine would mean that one has less nicotine in the body under stress (which is part of the explanation for increased smoking and, therefore, greater nicotine self-administration under stress). If the listener means by “more sensitive” that there is a greater need for nicotine, then the acidification mechanism is consistent with that experience. However, if the listener means by “more sensitive” that given amounts of nicotine have greater effects under stress, then that is not consistent with the acidification mechanism which contributes to a pharmacokinetic alteration in nicotine actions and it would not be consistent with other findings that nicotine’s pharmacodynamic actions also decrease under stress (the other reason why smokers smoke more under stress).”

      Hope you find these comments helpful, Bill (keep us posted on on your self-experimentation), and a big “thank you” to Dr. Grunberg for the thoughtful response!

  3. Lucas Aoun says:

    As a completely naive-Nicotine individual, it frustrates me that there truly is no place to start (micro dosing) nicotine.
    If anyone could suggest a nifty way to micro dose nicotine to gauge it’s subjective effects (without becoming nauseated and sick) please let me know, because my brain is calling out to trial nicotine during a study session.

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Hi there Lucas — Nicotine gum or an anti-smoking “patch” is an easy way to give nicotine a test-run. Neither is likely to sicken you. I’d never touched nicotine prior to the use of a patch. As mentioned in the podcast, an entire patch I found to be “too strong” — but that was entirely based on my mental response, not any physical unpleasantness. You can “micro” your dose with a scissors (by cutting the patch smaller an applying only a small piece). I leave the microdosing of gum to your imagination. 🙂

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