The effects of tobacco smoke and nicotine on cognition and the brain

Neuropsychol Rev. 2007 Sep;17(3):259-73. doi: 10.1007/s11065-007-9035-9. Epub 2007 Aug 10.


Tobacco smoke consists of thousands of compounds including nicotine. Many constituents have known toxicity to the brain, cardiovascular, and pulmonary systems. Nicotine, on the other hand, by virtue of its short-term actions on the cholinergic system, has positive effects on certain cognitive domains including working memory and executive function and may be, under certain conditions, neuroprotective. In this paper, we review recent literature, laboratory and epidemiologic, that describes the components of mainstream and sidestream tobacco smoke, including heavy metals and their toxicity, the effect of medicinal nicotine on the brain, and studies of the relationship between smoking and (1) preclinical brain changes including silent brain infarcts; white matter hyperintensities, and atrophy; (2) single measures of cognition; (3) cognitive decline over repeated measures; and (4) dementia. In most studies, exposure to smoke is associated with increased risk for negative preclinical and cognitive outcomes in younger people as well as in older adults. Potential mechanisms for smoke's harmful effects include oxidative stress, inflammation, and atherosclerotic processes. Recent evidence implicates medicinal nicotine as potentially harmful to both neurodevelopment in children and to catalyzing processes underlying neuropathology in Alzheimer's Disease. The reviewed evidence suggests caution with the use of medicinal nicotine in pregnant mothers and older adults at risk for certain neurological disease. Directions for future research in this area include the assessment of comorbidities (alcohol consumption, depression) that could confound the association between smoking and neurocognitive outcomes, the use of more specific measures of smoking behavior and cognition, the use of biomarkers to index exposure to smoke, and the assessment of cognition-related genotypes to better understand the role of interactions between smoking/nicotine and variation in genotype in determining susceptibility to the neurotoxic effects of smoking and the putative beneficial effects of medicinal nicotine.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Nicotinic Agonists / pharmacology*
  • Smoking / pathology*
  • Smoking / physiopathology*


  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Nicotine