Prompt but inefficient: nicotine differentially modulates discrete components of attention

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2011 Dec;218(4):667-80. doi: 10.1007/s00213-011-2361-x. Epub 2011 Jun 1.


Rationale: Nicotine has been shown to improve both memory and attention when assessed through speeded motor responses. Since very few studies have assessed effects of nicotine on visual attention using measures that are uncontaminated by motoric effects, nicotine's attentional effects may, at least partially, be due to speeding of motor function.

Objectives: Using an unspeeded, accuracy-based test, the CombiTVA paradigm, we examined whether nicotine enhances attention when it is measured independently of motor processing.

Methods: We modelled data with a computational theory of visual attention (TVA; Bundesen 1990) so as to derive independent estimates of several distinct components of attention from performance of the single task: threshold of visual perception, perceptual processing speed, visual short-term memory storage capacity and top-down controlled selectivity. Acute effects of nicotine (2 mg gum) on performance were assessed in 24 healthy young non-smokers in a placebo-controlled counterbalanced, crossover design. Chronic effects of nicotine were investigated in 24 age- and education-matched minimally deprived smokers.

Results: Both an acute dose of nicotine in non-smokers and chronic nicotine use in temporarily abstaining smokers improved perceptual thresholds but slowed subsequent perceptual speed. Moreover, both acute and chronic nicotine use reduced attentional selectivity though visual short-term memory capacity was unimpaired.

Conclusions: Nicotine differentially affected discrete components of visual attention, with acute and chronic doses revealing identical patterns of performance. We challenge prior reports of nicotine-induced speeding of information processing by showing, for the first time, that nicotine slows down perceptual processing speed when assessed using accuracy-based measures of cognitive performance.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / drug effects*
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Drug Administration Schedule
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / drug effects
  • Models, Biological
  • Nicotine / administration & dosage
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Nicotinic Agonists / administration & dosage
  • Nicotinic Agonists / pharmacology*
  • Smoking
  • Time Factors
  • Visual Perception / drug effects*
  • Young Adult


  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Nicotine