The question came from an attendee at one of my recent Brain Fitness workshops.
Mmm I thought, how do I answer this one appropriately? It's a really curly question because yes, while nicotine has been shown in the laboratory to help us to pay better attention and slightly enhance memory, no-one in their right mind would ever recommend smoking or even use nicotine per se to help the brain.
Smoking is a recognised risk factor for dementia and is associated with increased brain shrinkage.
But what is the image we see time after time on TV programs? We see there has been an incident, a drama, and the hero(ine) needs to concentrate and work things out quickly, so what do they do?
They light up and take a couple of big drags on the cancer sticks.
Can we consider nicotine ever as being good for us? Researchers have previously used fMRI to watch the effect of nicotine on the brain during a task that requires sustained attention and working memory. These tasks are called RVIP's (rapid visual information processing). What the brain scans showed was that in smokers, the presence of nicotine improved performance by shifting cognitive resources from less "used" parts of the brain to those areas used in such task performance.
New studies from Uppsala Sweden and Brazil have now in addition, shown that the brain has a newly identified group of brain cells in the hippocampus that regulate processes of learning and memory and yes, they carry a receptor for nicotine.
The hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with learning and memory. It is where information that the brain has taken in is consolidated and sorted for encoding into long-term memory. These newly identified cells act as gatekeepers which when activated by nicotine prioritising the formation of memories via local input.
It is all quite complicated. What researchers would like to know next is which types of memory and learning may be selected for by activating these gatekeeper cells and also how to harness nicotine's beneficial effect on assisting information processing without all the other issues and nicotine dependence associated with smoking.
Until we know more, my message remains the same: Smoking kills, and if the cancer doesn't get you, then dementia probably will.
NIH/National Institute On Drug Abuse (2003, January 14). Scientists Identify Brain Regions Where Nicotine Affects Attention, Other Cognitive Skills. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 15, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2003/01/030114072413.htm
Richardson N Leão, Sanja Mikulovic, Katarina E Leão, Hermany Munguba, Henrik Gezelius, Anders Enjin, Kalicharan Patra, Anders Eriksson, Leslie M Loew, Adriano B L Tort, Klas Kullander. OLM interneurons differentially modulate CA3 and entorhinal inputs to hippocampal CA1 neurons. Nature Neuroscience, 2012; DOI: 10.1038/nn.3235