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.
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.
Nicotine - Part 2
This Week in Neuroscience: Pollution particles 'get into brain'
The audience interaction section
Next #AxonChat - Wednesday, September 28 at 8pm Eastern Time with Dominic D’Agostino
Re-introduction to Neil Grunberg
What else does nicotine do?
The dangers of tobacco have little to do with nicotine
Nicotine: addictive, not evil
The correlation between various routes to administration and addiction
Tolerance increase due to exposure
Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and designer drugs
Are there long-term upsides or downsides to nicotine use?
A cost-benefit analysis for using nicotine
Buying a new... heart?
Staying alert into your 90s
A future addiction episode
Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Compulsive drinking in rats stopped cold by flipping neurons like switches