Nicotinic effects on cognitive function: behavioral characterization, pharmacological specification, and anatomic localization

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2006 Mar;184(3-4):523-39. doi: 10.1007/s00213-005-0164-7. Epub 2005 Oct 12.


Rationale: Nicotine has been shown in a variety of studies in humans and experimental animals to improve cognitive function. Nicotinic treatments are being developed as therapeutic treatments for cognitive dysfunction.

Objectives: Critical for the development of nicotinic therapeutics is an understanding of the neurobehavioral bases for nicotinic involvement in cognitive function.

Methods: Specific and diverse cognitive functions affected by nicotinic treatments are reviewed, including attention, learning, and memory. The neural substrates for these behavioral actions involve the identification of the critical pharmacologic receptor targets, in particular brain locations, and how those incipient targets integrate with broader neural systems involved with cognitive function.

Results: Nicotine and nicotinic agonists can improve working memory function, learning, and attention. Both alpha4beta2 and alpha7 nicotinic receptors appear to be critical for memory function. The hippocampus and the amygdala in particular have been found to be important for memory, with decreased nicotinic activity in these areas impairing memory. Nicotine and nicotinic analogs have shown promise for inducing cognitive improvement. Positive therapeutic effects have been seen in initial studies with a variety of cognitive dysfunctions, including Alzheimer's disease, age-associated memory impairment, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Conclusions: Discovery of the behavioral, pharmacological, and anatomic specificity of nicotinic effects on learning, memory, and attention not only aids the understanding of nicotinic involvement in the basis of cognitive function, but also helps in the development of novel nicotinic treatments for cognitive dysfunction. Nicotinic treatments directed at specific receptor subtypes and nicotinic cotreatments with drugs affecting interacting transmitter systems may provide cognitive benefits most relevant to different syndromes of cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Further research is necessary in order to determine the efficacy and safety of nicotinic treatments of these cognitive disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / drug therapy
  • Amygdala / drug effects
  • Animals
  • Attention / drug effects
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Hippocampus / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Learning / drug effects
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Mice
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / drug effects
  • Schizophrenia / drug therapy
  • alpha7 Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor


  • Chrna7 protein, human
  • Chrna7 protein, mouse
  • Chrna7 protein, rat
  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • alpha7 Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor
  • nicotinic acetylcholine receptor alpha4 subunit
  • nicotinic receptor beta2
  • Nicotine