Nicotine arouses brain activity

Photo by Eriana Ruiz | Research suggests nicotine excites areas of the brain, such as the one associated with memory, though tobacco consumption is both harmful and addictive.

By John C. McClanahan

Tobacco consumption, regardless of means – smoking, vaping or chewing raw leaves – is addictive and dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking alone causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the U.S. – more deaths than by drug and alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries and firearm-related incidents combined.

Even smokeless tobacco products increase users’ chances of developing periodontal diseases such as mouth cancer, gum disease and tooth loss, according to the CDC. As e-cigarettes continue to increase in popularity among younger generations, many users wonder whether tobacco-derived vaping products produce the same detrimental effects as cigarettes.

Many Americans see tobacco as a carcinogenic monster blackening the lungs of chain-smokers and rotting the gums of raw-cut dippers. For the most part, people are aware tobacco consumption damages the body.

But tobacco is just a plant. And its main active chemical – nicotine – is often misunderstood.

Today, nicotine is one of the most commonly used addictive substances in the U.S, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Only 6% of smokers are able to quit in a given year,” according to NIDA.

But nicotine does not cause cancer, according to NIDA. The carcinogens polluting smokers’ bodies do. “Nicotine is demonized because of its association with tobacco, but in reality, it’s a relatively harmless drug, similar to caffeine,” according to the American Council on Science and Health, or ACSH.


According to “Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstacy,” nicotine is a stimulant that increases attention, concentration and possibly memory. Many users report the chemical has calming or anti-anxiety effects as well.

People might not consider ingesting nicotine as a mental performance enhancer, but research suggests the chemical can increase brain activity. “Several studies have shown that nicotine increases the activity in brain regions associated with memory and other mental functions, as well as in some structures involved with physical movement,” according to “Buzzed.”

Nicotine excites nerve cells, increasing the rate of signaling among them and potentially giving users better memory. A student might smoke a cigarette to study better.

However, consuming nicotine to improve one’s thinking abilities might not be such a good idea. Too much of the chemical might lead to major mental health problems, such as depression.


According to “Buzzed,” adolescent smokers are twice as likely to suffer an episode of major depression, and teens with long-term depression are more likely to be smokers. The potential for psychological harm should dissuade anyone from trying to use nicotine to improve cognitive function. It’s not worth it.

One might also wonder whether the method of delivery changes how nicotine affects the brain.

Ingesting tobacco products using electronic nicotine delivery systems has become especially popular among younger generations, most notably millennials. According to the ACSH, e-cigarettes can give users a dose of nicotine without the carcinogens found in tobacco cigarettes. But vaping nicotine is still not 100% safe. 

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, vaping is a safer alternative to smoking, but is just as addictive. In vape fluid, nicotine is mixed with the chemical propylene glycol to be inhaled as an aerosol, according to CNN. Despite being delivered in a vapor instead of smoke, nicotine is still a toxic substance that raises blood pressure and heart rate, increasing chances of cardiac arrest, according to Johns Hopkins.


“There is a well-established link between cigarette smoking and depression,” according to Addictive Behaviors, an international science journal. “Less is known about the potential association between alternative tobacco products, such as hookah, cigars, smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes with depression.”

In 2017, researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston surveyed over 5,400 college students from 24 Texas colleges, according to Nicotine & Tobacco Research, a peer-reviewed medical journal. The study showed no direct link between e-cigarette use and increased depression over a six-month period and stated more research on a possible correlation is needed.

Nicotine might not be the culprit behind increased depression in e-cigarette users, and e-cigarette smokers chances of developing problems such as heart disease might be the same as a smoker’s.

According to a study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, nearly 70,000 daily e-cigarette users doubled their chances of having a heart attack. However, a 2018 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that e-cigarette use increased risk for heart or respiratory disease, and found evidence of increased risks for prolonged use in animal studies, according to UCSF’s Center for Tobacco Control and Research.