Background: Cigarette smoking is the main cause of preventable death in developed countries. While the direct positive behavioral reinforcing effect of nicotine has historically been considered the primary mechanism driving the development of TUD, accumulating contemporary research suggests that the cognitive-enhancing effects of nicotine may also significantly contribute to the initiation and maintenance of TUD, especially in individuals with pre-existing cognitive deficits.
Methods: We provide a selective overview of recent advances in understanding nicotine’s effects on cognitive function, a discussion of the role of cognitive function in vulnerability to TUD, followed by an overview of the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the cognitive effects of nicotine.
Results: Preclinical models and human studies have demonstrated that nicotine has cognitiveenhancing effects. Attention, working memory, fine motor skills and episodic memory functions are particularly sensitive to nicotine's effects. Recent studies have demonstrated that the α4, β2, and α7 subunits of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) participate in the cognitive-enhancing effects of nicotine. Imaging studies have been instrumental in identifying brain regions where nicotine is active, and research on the dynamics of large-scale networks after activation by, or withdrawal from, nicotine hold promise for improved understanding of the complex actions of nicotine on human cognition.
Conclusion: Because poor cognitive performance at baseline predicts relapse among smokers who are attempting to quit smoking, studies examining the potential efficacy of cognitive-enhancement as strategy for the treatment of TUD may lead to the development of more efficacious interventions.