Effects of smoking/nicotine on performance and event-related potentials during a short-term memory scanning task

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2001 Aug;156(4):388-96. doi: 10.1007/s002130100751.


Rationale: Nicotine absorbed from cigarette smoke shortens reaction time (RT) in a wide variety of cognitive tasks. However, relatively few studies have tried to isolate the specific stage(s) of information processing affected by smoking/nicotine.

Objective: The present study was designed to investigate the effect of smoking/nicotine on the short-term memory (STM) scanning stage of information processing in minimally abstaining smokers. Both RT and event-related potentials (ERPs) were measured.

Methods: A Sternberg-type STM-scanning task was performed before and after smoking each of two cigarettes. One cigarette had a 0.05-mg nicotine yield ("denicotinized") and the other had a 1.1-mg yield ("nicotine-yielding"). On each trial, either 2, 3, or 4 consonants were displayed as a memory set. After a brief interval, a single probe consonant was displayed. If the probe was in the memory set (positive probe) a right button press was required, and if the probe was not in the memory set (negative probe) the left button was pressed.

Results: Smoking the nicotine-yielding cigarette but not the denicotinized cigarette shortened RT. However, memory-scanning speed, as estimated from the increase in RT as a function of increasing set size, was not differentially affected by the two types of cigarettes. For the ERPs, smoking the nicotine-yielding but not the denicotinized cigarette (a) reduced N200 latency to both the memory-set stimuli and negative probes, (b) increased N200 amplitude to negative probes and P300 amplitude to both types of probes, and (c) produced a sustained negative shift in memory-set ERP amplitude beginning around 600 ms post-stimulus.

Conclusion: While smoking/nicotine shortened probe RT, it did not affect the speed of STM scanning. Moreover, the ERP-latency effects obtained for the probes were small relative to the effects of smoking/nicotine on RT, suggesting that smoking/nicotine shortens RT primarily by affecting response-related processes.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Carbon Monoxide / metabolism
  • Event-Related Potentials, P300 / drug effects*
  • Event-Related Potentials, P300 / physiology
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / drug effects
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / drug effects*
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Nicotinic Agonists / pharmacology*
  • Reaction Time / drug effects
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Smoking / physiopathology*
  • Smoking / psychology*
  • Tidal Volume / drug effects
  • Tidal Volume / physiology


  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Nicotine
  • Carbon Monoxide