Here’s How Nicotine Impacts The Brain

Here’s How Nicotine Impacts The Brain



Nicotine is one of the single most addictive substances in the world. It is also the most commonly-abused drug in the world.

Most of us are at least relatively aware of how nicotine affects the body. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about its impact on the brain. In this article, we’ll discuss how nicotine interacts with this vital organ.

Among other topics of discussion:

– What nicotine is and what it does

– Why nicotine is in tobacco products

– Tobacco use statistics and trends


– How nicotine impacts the brain

– How to kick the tobacco habit for good

If nothing else, please read this last section!

Let’s do this!

What is nicotine?

First and foremost, the most vital thing to understand about nicotine is that it is a critical ingredient in tobacco; in cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and in both wet and dry snuff.

Nicotine is a nitrogen-producing compound that is synthetically extracted from the Nicotiana tabacum plant. Although this plant is part of the nightshade family (e.g., eggplant, red peppers, tomatoes), it hasn’t much in common with its kin. That is, it offers no real health benefits to speak of.

Why do cigarettes include nicotine? Because nicotine is highly addictive. According to the U.S. surgeon general’s office, nicotine is as addictive as both cocaine and heroin. In other words, it is the nicotine that causes tobacco dependence. Tobacco, as we very well know, can cause deadly cancers and other severe medical complications.

Nicotine also stimulates the bodily processes that create the ‘high’ that users experience. Relatedly, the progressive effects of nicotine use on the body put it on par with alcohol and cocaine. As is the case with these drugs, nicotine produces a tolerance effect on the body, requiring the user to consume more of the chemical to experience the same “high.”

Tobacco User Statistics and Trends

Per a study published in the journal Addict Health, nicotine constitutes approximately:

– 3.8 percent of tobacco weight in pipe tobacco


– 1.8 percent of tobacco weight in domestic cigarettes

– 1.2 percent of tobacco weight in imported cigarettes

Scientists estimate that the nicotine content in one can of snuff or dip is the equivalent of about 80 cigarettes or four packs.

Additionally, the researchers found “no significant difference” in nicotine-to-tobacco weight between regular and light cigarettes (e.g., Marlboros vs. Marlboro Lights.)

Tobacco use statistics

Due to the highly addictive nature of nicotine, quitting tobacco in any form is very difficult. Per the World Health Organization (WHO):

– Around 1 billion people worldwide smoke cigarettes

– Tobacco use is responsible for about 8 million deaths per year. 1.2 million were non-smokers who succumbed to the effects of secondhand smoke.

– Eighty percent of the world’s smokers, or 1.1 billion people, live in low- or middle-income countries.

– Tobacco use results in the death of about half of its users.

– Tobacco smoke consists of more than 7,000 chemicals.

According to an article published by LiveScience, males dominate the smoking ranks. Here are a couple of statistics:


– More than 8 out of every ten smokers are men.

– Research shows a decrease in the percentage of smokers worldwide (35 to 25 percent for men and 8 to 5 percent for women). But population growth (5.3 billion in 1990 to 7.2 billion in 2015) negates this proportional decrease, meaning that more people are smoking than before.

Nicotine is primarily a psychoactive substance, meaning that it affects the mind and mental processes. In the next section, we’ll discuss the effects of this chemical on the brain.

The Effects of Nicotine on the Brain

“Every drug of abuse, including nicotine, releases dopamine, which makes it pleasurable to use. And when you stop smoking, you have a deficiency of dopamine release, which causes a state of dysphoria: you feel anxious or depressed.” ~ Dr. Neil Benowitz (Source)

After a user inhales tobacco, it takes just eight seconds to reach the human brain.  The immediate results are an increase in blood pressure and heart rate and enhanced alertness.

Long-term, nicotine causes several biological changes in the brain, particularly to the neurotransmitters (brain chemical) acetylcholine and dopamine.

However, as we will see, usage of this substance also links to improved performance in many areas.

Nicotine and acetylcholine

Nicotine causes disruption to the normal functioning of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine plays a role in numerous cognitive functions, including alertness, learning, and memory. Physiological roles of acetylcholine include blood vessel dilation, heart rate regulation, muscle contraction, muscle movement, and respiration.

Because of the structural similarities between nicotine and acetylcholine, the brain detects the presence of the former for that of the latter. As a result, the body signals for a decrease in the production of acetylcholine and requires nicotine to resume proper functioning.

In essence, this product “takes over” for acetylcholine – despite lacking the capability to promote the latter’s role in the brain. Simply put, the brain requires (read: is addicted to) nicotine to properly function.

One reason that it is difficult to quit tobacco use is that nicotine alters the acetylcholine receptors. If we could somehow zoom in on the minuscule gap between neurons in smokers, we’d see something striking. Where neurotransmitters pass from one brain cell to another, acetylcholine receptors are absent.

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