Nicotine (3-(1-Methyl-2-pyrrolidinyl) pyridine) is an alkaloid found in tobacco leaves. And has been used by humans for its psychoactive (nootropic) properties for thousands of years.
But it is only in the last several decades that nicotine’s mechanism of action in the brain has been revealed.
Studies have shown however that this upregulation of nAChR is dose dependent. And too much nicotine desensitizes these receptors.[i] So low doses of nicotine are key in using nicotine as a nootropic for cognitive benefit.
Since we’re investigating nicotine as a nootropic here, it’s important to point out that we are not encouraging smoking. Smoking tobacco has been shown to increase cognition.
But the harmful effects of tobacco have been proven extensively.[ii] Including this study that showed life-time smokers have less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex compared to non-smokers. Affecting the brain’s reward, impulse control and decision-making circuits.[iii]
- Memory. Nicotine improves short and long-term memory. Nicotine increases neurotransmitters that helps with memory formation. And induces long-term potentiation which helps encode long-term memories.
- Neurotransmitters. Nicotine binds to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the brain. Boosting the release of acetylcholine (ACh), dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate. Affecting alertness[iv], attention, cognition, memory and mood.
- Brain Optimization. Nicotine modulates the connectivity and structure of brain networks. And improves whole-brain communication efficiency. Boosting overall cognitive and brain function.[v]
Table of Contents
Nicotine (3-(1-Methyl-2-pyrrolidinyl) pyridine) is an alkaloid found most famously in tobacco leaves. But nicotine is also present in very small amounts in plants from the Solanaceae or nightshade family including potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant.[vi]
New drugs derived from nicotine and the research on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s, ADHD, anger management, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, Tourette Syndrome and wound healing.[vii]
As a nootropic, we’re talking about using a nicotine lozenge or gum for cognitive enhancement. We are NOT talking about smoking tobacco.
Smoking is the cause of 5 – 6 million deaths per year. Affecting 18 different organs in your body. But it’s not the nicotine in tobacco that kills.
The biggest issue with using nicotine as a nootropic is that it can be addictive. But it’s not the nicotine that causes cancer. Nicotine however could be a “tumor promoter”.
Nicotine binds specifically to the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) in your brain. And it deregulates essential processes like regulation of cell proliferation, apoptosis (programmed cell death), migration, invasion, angiogenesis, inflammation and cell-mediated immunity of stem cells, adult tissues and cancer cells.[viii]
As a nootropic, nicotine works in smalls doses (i.e. 1-2 mg) used occasionally when you need that cognitive boost. If you have cancer or a tendency to tumor growth you should avoid using nicotine as a nootropic.
How does Nicotine work in the Brain?
Nicotine boosts brain health and function in several ways. But two in particular stand out.
- Nicotine boosts memory. Nicotine binds to presynaptic nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the brain. And boosts the release of acetylcholine (ACh), dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate.[ix] Neurotransmitters known to be involved in cognitive processes.
Problems with cholinergic signaling has been implicated in neurologic disorders including schizophrenia, ADHD and addiction. And much of the study of nicotine’s effects on cognition has been done looking for treatments for these disorders.[x]
The National Institute of Drug Abuse conducted a meta-analysis of 41 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies between 1994 and 2008. The analysis found significant positive effects of nicotine on fine motor performance, alertness, attention and accuracy, response time, short-term and working memory.[xi]
- Nicotine improves attention. Attention deficits are often associated with those dealing with ADHD. The inability to focus can cause all kinds of problems both in relationships, and on the job.
Nicotine has been shown to improve attentiveness in smokers. And helps alleviate attention deficits in Alzheimer’s Disease, schizophrenics and adults with ADHD.
A double-blind study conducted at Duke University Medical Center used nicotine patches to see if it would improve attentiveness in non-smoking adults without attention deficits. Subjects received 7 mg of nicotine per day using a transdermal patch for a 4 ½ hour morning session.
Nicotine significantly decreased the number of omission errors during testing. And in this study, decreased the variance in “hit reaction time” which is used a measure of attentiveness.
The study showed that nicotine reduced attention deficit, and even improved attentiveness in normal adult non-smokers.[xii]
As we get older, our brain chemistry and energy metabolism changes.[xiii]
↓ Acetylcholine signaling in the brain declines
↓ Dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine and serotonin levels decline
↓ Alertness, attention and memory declines
↑ Anxiety, depression and stress increases
All of these age-related changes are contributing factors to the neurodegenerative diseases of aging, including Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Nicotine to the rescue
Nicotine boosts levels of dopamine, epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine and serotonin. And stimulates the growth of new blood vessels. Even increasing the number of red blood cells.
Nicotine stimulates electrical and neurotransmitter activity throughout your brain. Helping alertness, mood, motivation, selective attention, sustained attention, and decreases distraction.[xv]
Nicotine helps pre-attentional processing which is your ability to detect information. It brings you down when you’re up. And it brings you up when you’re down. And it helps you cope with stress and anxiety.
How does Nicotine feel?
Neurohackers report nicotine improves mental clarity and motivation. Mood swings are minimized and less anxiety.
Concentration and focus significantly get a boost with nicotine as a nootropic.
All forms of memory get a boost with nicotine. Short and long-term memory. And working memory. Nicotine induces long-term potentiation in the hippocampus which is the basis for the neuroplasticity that helps encode long-term memory.[xvii]
The key with nicotine is to use low doses. And only use it occasionally. Too much nicotine desensitizes the alpha-7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. So tolerance is an issue. But your receptors recover fairly quickly if you give them a break for a day.
Much of the research conducted with nicotine was done with cigarette smokers. The studies were to determine the effects of abstinence (quitting smoking) on cognition. Or funded by tobacco companies out to prove smoking was good for you (i.e. improved cognition).
So keep an open mind when reviewing these studies. Our intent is certainly not to encourage smoking. But to show the effects of nicotine regardless of the delivery system to the human brain.
Nicotine boosts IQ
Researchers in New Zealand conducted a trial with 10 women and 6 men ranging in age from 18 – 32 years. All participants were smokers and were instructed not to smoke during the 2-hour period prior to the experiment.
Each subject completed the even and odd numbers of the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices (APM) test in two sessions. APM is a test to measure intelligence (IQ).
In each of 2 experimental sessions, subjects were given 20 minutes to complete the assigned half of the APM. Before beginning the test, subjects took 6 puffs of a medium (0.8 mg) cigarette every 20 seconds. After 10 minutes, subjects were prompted to take 2 additional puffs.
Results of the experiment showed that APM scores were significantly higher in the smoking session compared to the non-smoking session. Suggesting that nicotine acts to enhance intelligence.[xviii]
Another study at the University of Colorado may explain part of this boost in IQ. Nicotine was found to increase the efficiency of neural communication between areas of the brain involved in cognition. And even the rest of the brain.[xix]
Nicotine improves typing speed
Researchers conducted 5 experiments to study the effects of using 2 mg of nicotine on keyboard typing speed. In study after study nicotine produced a reliably consistent increase in typing speed.[xx]
Nicotine will also improve and increase the speed of your handwriting. Scientists in Germany noted that nicotine has consistently been shown to improve psychomotor performance. So they recruited 38 smokers and 38 non-smokers to participate in a study.
Both groups received gum containing 0, 2 or 4 mg of nicotine. And their handwriting performance was assessed after they chewed the nicotine gum. Subjects were asked to perform a simple writing task. Movement time, velocity and acceleration of handwriting movements were measured.
Nicotine reduced movement times, increased writing velocity and more fluid handwriting movements were observed. The results suggested that nicotine can enhance psychomotor performance to a significant degree in a real-lie motor task.[xxi]
Nicotine boosts memory
Nicotine has been shown to improve short-term and working memory in several studies. In this study conducted in the UK, researchers recruited 60 smokers and 60 non-smokers in a double-blind procedure.
Half of the subjects chewed nicotine gum and the other half chewed a placebo prior to performing a memory task. Results showed that nicotine significantly improves short-term memory.[xxii]
Nicotine for the treatment of ADHD
Several studies have shown the benefits of nicotine in treating the symptoms of ADHD. Focusing and memory break down in those of us with ADHD and ADD. And treatment with Ritalin, Adderall or other stimulants often corrects this inattentiveness and memory impairment. But it does nothing for the accompanying depression and anxiety.
And this is the reason many Adult ADHD sufferers smoke. This study showed that using a nicotine patch not only helped decrease anxiety and depression symptoms of ADHD. It also helped smokers stop using tobacco products while taking care of their ADHD symptoms.[xxiii]
In this study, nicotine was compared to the effects Ritalin and or a placebo had in treating ADHD. Nicotine improved performance and reduced errors. It decreased depression, and decreased overall severity of ADHD symptoms.[xxiv]
Another double-blind, placebo-controlled trial worked with 6 smokers and 11 nonsmokers with Adult ADHD. Nicotine decreased ADHD symptoms, increased vigor, and improved reaction time.[xxv]
Nicotine as a nootropic is dosed at 1 – 2 mg on an as needed basis.
The problem with nicotine gum is aspartame along with other unhealthy sweeteners.
Nicotine patches come in varying strengths and usually contain more nicotine than gum or lozenges. Neurohackers (contrary to package warnings) cut the patch to size depending on the dose they want to use.
My preferred method is nicotine lozenges. The mini-lozenges are best because they’re not full of toxic chemicals like the larger lozenges. The 2 mg mini-lozenge cut in half provides a nice cognitive boost in 10 – 20 minutes.
Nicotine is addictive primarily because it boosts levels of dopamine in your brain.[xxvi] Not nearly as addictive as smoking tobacco but addictive nonetheless.
Nicotine can cause increased heart rate, dizziness, cough, sneezing, sinus problems, upset stomach, constipation, and headaches.
Nicotine does not “cause” cancer. But may be a tumor promoter. So if you had or currently have cancer you should avoid nicotine.
If you are dealing with a gut infection of H pylori bacteria, you should not use nicotine until you get this problem under control.
Nicotine as a nootropic comes in gum, inhalers, lozenges, and transdermal patches.
See “Dosage Notes” for specific dosing instructions.
Mini-lozenges are the safest and best form for nootropic use.
Nicotine spray is a newer option you may want to try. You get a 1 mg dose for each spray under your tongue (sublingually). Great for a quick cognitive boost and burst of energy. There’s about 100 sprays in each container.
Of course there is also smoking and chewing tobacco for your nicotine dose which we DO NOT recommend.
Vaping is another option. But it can come with a host of potential issues if you’re not familiar with vaping. The safest option is rebuildable coils using stainless steel wire and organic cotton with vegetable glycerin as your nicotine base. And keeping the temperature low and power less than 4 volts.
Nootropics Expert Recommendation
Nicotine 1 – 2 mg per dose
We recommend using Nicotine as a nootropic supplement.
Your body does not make nicotine on its own. So if you are going to supplement with nicotine, you must take it as a supplement.
Nicotine is especially helpful for dealing with the symptoms of Adult ADHD. Nicotine can help relieve most of the symptoms of ADHD. And is a good compliment to your existing ADHD meds.
While nicotine is a powerful cognitive enhancer, it is also addictive and can lead to tolerance and withdrawal symptoms in some people. So caution is advised. And if you’re prone to addiction please stay away from nicotine.
We suggest starting with a dose of ½ – 1 mg of nicotine in mini-lozenge or spray form. Nicotine will compliment nearly everything in your current nootropic stack.
There is no benefit to dosing more than 2 mg of nicotine for cognitive benefit. And too avoid addiction and tolerance we suggest only using nicotine occasionally.
[i] Gentry C.L., Lukas R.J. “Regulation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor numbers and function by chronic nicotine exposure.” Current Drug Targets: CNS and Neurological Disorders. 2002 Aug;1(4):359-85. (source)
[ix] Di Matteo V., Pierucci M., Di Giovanni G., Benigno A., Esposito E. “The neurobiological bases for the pharmacotherapy of nicotine addiction.” Current Pharmaceutical Design. 2007;13(12):1269-84. (source)
[x] Mansvelder H.D., van Aerde K.I., Couey J.J., Brussaard A.B. “Nicotinic modulation of neuronal networks: from receptors to cognition.” Psychopharmacology (Berlin). 2006 Mar;184(3-4):292-305. (source)
[xiii] Costell M., O'Connor J.E., Grisolía S. “Age-dependent decrease of carnitine content in muscle of mice and humans.” Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 1989 Jun 30;161(3):1135-43. (source)
[xiv] Domino E.F., Ni L., Thompson M., Zhang H., Shikata H., Fukai H., Sakaki T., Ohya I. “Tobacco smoking produces widespread dominant brain wave alpha frequency increases.” International Journal of Psychophysiology. 2009 Dec;74(3):192-8 (source)
[xxi] Tucha O., Lange K.W. “Effects of nicotine chewing gum on a real-life motor task: a kinematic analysis of handwriting movements in smokers and non-smokers.” Psychopharmacology (Berlin). 2004 Apr;173(1-2):49-56 (source)
[xxiv] Levin E.D., Conners C.K., Silva D., Canu W., March J. “Effects of chronic nicotine and methylphenidate in adults with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. 2001 Feb;9(1):83-90. (source)
[xxv] Levin E.D., Conners C.K., Sparrow E., Hinton S.C., Erhardt D., Meck W.H., Rose J.E., March J. “Nicotine effects on adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” Psychopharmacology (Berlin). 1996 Jan;123(1):55-63. (source)