Rational: Activation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors has a major neuromodulatory impact on central nervous system function. Beyond acute activation, chronic nicotine intake has long-lasting effects on cortical excitability in animal experiments, caused by receptor up- or down-regulation. Knowledge about the impact of nicotine on cortical excitability in humans, however, is limited.
Objectives: We therefore aimed to explore the effect of nicotine intake on cortical excitability in healthy human smokers and non-smokers.
Methods: The primary motor cortex served as model, and cortical excitability was monitored via transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Corticospinal excitability and intracortical excitability were recorded before and after application of nicotine patch in both groups. Corticospinal excitability was explored by motor threshold and input/output curve (I/O curve), and intracortical excitability was explored by means of paired-pulse TMS techniques (intracortical facilitation (ICF), short-latency intracortical inhibition (SICI), I-wave facilitation and short-latency afferent inhibition (SAI)).
Results: The results show that smokers during nicotine withdrawal display increased corticospinal excitability with regard to the I/O curve (TMS intensity 150 % of resting motor threshold) compared to non-smokers and furthermore enhanced SAI and diminished ICF at the intracortical circuit level. After administration of nicotine, intracortical facilitation in smokers increased, while in non-smokers, inhibition (SICI, SAI) was enhanced.
Conclusion: Our results show that chronic nicotine consumption in smokers alters cortical excitability independent from acute nicotine consumption and that acute nicotine has different effects on motor cortical excitability in both groups.