Association between tobacco smoking and cognitive functioning in young adults

Am J Addict. 2012 Nov;21 Suppl 1:S14-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1521-0391.2012.00290.x.


Background: Tobacco smoking represents a considerable public health burden globally. Smoking in older adults is associated with cognitive impairment and more rapid age-associated cognitive decline, but there is a paucity of studies in younger people.

Method: Adults aged 18-29 years were recruited from a longitudinal study investigating impulsivity in young people. Exclusion criteria were presence of any axis-I morbidity or cannabis use. Subjects undertook neurocognitive assessment using the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB). Demographic, clinical, and cognitive differences between smokers (N = 37) and nonsmokers (N = 177) were characterized.

Results: Groups were well matched in terms of age, education, income, and gender. In comparison to nonsmokers, nicotine users showed significant cognitive impairments on sustained attention (target detection: p= .005), spatial working memory (errors: p= .023, strategy use: p= .004), executive planning (p= .002), and did not appropriately adjust behavior as a function of risk (Gamble task risk adjustment: p= .004). Smokers were intact on general response speeds and response inhibition.

Conclusions: These data, using objective translational paradigms, support an association between tobacco smoking and cognitive problems in young people, with implications for such individuals and for society. Future studies should extend these results longitudinally to explore causality, and evaluate effects of nicotinic agents (including anti-smoking medications) on cognition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Cognition Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Smoking / epidemiology*
  • Smoking / physiopathology
  • Young Adult