In various studies nicotine has shown to alter cognitive functions in non-smoking subjects. The physiological basis for these effects might be nicotine-generated modulation of cortical structure, excitability, and activity, as mainly described in animal experiments. In accordance, a recently conducted study demonstrated that application of nicotine for hours via nicotine patch in non-smoking humans alters the effects of neuroplasticity-inducing non-invasive brain stimulation techniques on cortical excitability. Specifically, nicotine abolished inhibitory plasticity independent from the focality of the stimulation protocol. While nicotine prevented also the establishment of non-focal facilitatory plasticity, focal synapse-specific facilitatory plasticity was enhanced. These results agree with a focusing effect of prolonged nicotine application on facilitatory plasticity. However, since nicotine induces rapid adaption processes of its receptors, this scenario might differ from the effect of nicotine in cigarette smoking. Thus in this study we aimed to gain further insight in the mechanism of nicotine on plasticity by exploring the effect of nicotine spray on non-focal and focal plasticity-inducing protocols in non-smoking subjects, a fast-acting agent better comparable to cigarette smoking. Focal, synapse-specific plasticity was induced by paired associative stimulation (PAS), while non-focal plasticity was elicited by transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Forty eight non-smokers received nicotine spray respectively placebo combined with one of the following protocols (anodal tDCS, cathodal tDCS, PAS-25, and PAS-10). Corticospinal excitability was monitored via motor-evoked potentials elicited by transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Nicotine spray abolished facilitatory plasticity irrespective of focality and PAS-10-induced excitability diminution, while tDCS-derived excitability reduction was delayed and weakened. Nicotine spray had thus a clear effect on neuroplasticity in non-smoking subjects. However, the effects of nicotine spray differ clearly from those of prolonged nicotine application, which might be due to missing adaptive nicotinic receptor alterations. These results enhance our knowledge about the dynamic impact of nicotine on plasticity, which might be related to its heterogenous effect on cognition.
Keywords: PAS; neuroplasticity; nicotine; non-smokers; tDCS.