Background: In adult animals and humans, nicotine can produce short-term cognitive enhancement and, in some cases, neuroprotection. Recent work in animals, however, suggests that exposure to nicotine during adolescence might be neurotoxic. We tested for evidence of acute and chronic effects of tobacco smoking on cognition in adolescents who smoked tobacco daily and were compared with adolescent nonsmokers.
Methods: Verbal working memory, verbal learning and memory, selective, divided, sustained attention, mood, symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, and tobacco craving were examined in 41 adolescent daily smokers and 32 nonsmokers who were similar in age, gender, and education. Analyses were controlled for general intelligence, reading achievement, parental educational attainment, baseline affective symptoms, and lifetime exposure to alcohol and cannabis.
Results: In adolescent smokers, cessation of tobacco use increased tobacco craving, symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, and depressed mood. Adolescent smokers were found to have impairments in accuracy of working memory performance irrespective of recency of smoking. Performance decrements were more severe with earlier age of onset of smoking. Adolescent smokers experienced further disruption of working memory and verbal memory during smoking cessation. As a group, male smokers initiated smoking at an earlier age than female smokers and were significantly more impaired during tests of selective and divided attention than female smokers and nonsmokers.
Conclusions: Adolescent daily tobacco smokers experience acute impairments of verbal memory and working memory after smoking cessation, along with chronic decrements in cognitive performance that are consistent with preclinical evidence that neurotoxic effects of nicotine are more severe when exposure to nicotine occurs at earlier periods in development.