The dynamic effects of nicotine on the developing brain

Pharmacol Ther. 2009 May;122(2):125-39. doi: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2009.02.003. Epub 2009 Mar 5.


Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) regulate critical aspects of brain maturation during the prenatal, early postnatal, and adolescent periods. During these developmental windows, nAChRs are often transiently upregulated or change subunit composition in those neural structures that are undergoing major phases of differentiation and synaptogenesis, and are sensitive to environmental stimuli. Nicotine exposure, most often via tobacco smoke, but increasingly via nicotine replacement therapy, has been shown to have unique effects on the developing human brain. Consistent with a dynamic developmental role for acetylcholine, exogenous nicotine produces effects that are unique to the period of exposure and that impact the developing structures regulated by acetylcholine at that time. Here we present a review of the evidence, available from both the clinical literature and preclinical animal models, which suggests that the diverse effects of nicotine exposure are best evaluated in the context of regional and temporal expression patterns of nAChRs during sensitive maturational periods, and disruption of the normal developmental influences of acetylcholine. We present evidence that nicotine interferes with catecholamine and brainstem autonomic nuclei development during the prenatal period of the rodent (equivalent to first and second trimester of the human), alters the neocortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum during the early postnatal period (third trimester of the human), and influences limbic system and late monoamine maturation during adolescence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / embryology
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Fetal Development / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / genetics
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / physiology*


  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • Nicotine