Complex relationships of nicotinic receptor actions and cognitive functions

Biochem Pharmacol. 2013 Oct 15;86(8):1145-52. doi: 10.1016/j.bcp.2013.07.021. Epub 2013 Aug 6.


Nicotine has been shown in a variety of studies to improve cognitive function including learning, memory and attention. Nicotine both stimulates and desensitizes nicotinic receptors, thus acting both as an agonist and a net antagonist. The relative roles of these two actions for nicotine-induced cognitive improvement have not yet been fully determined. We and others have found that acute nicotinic antagonist treatment can improve learning and attention. Nicotine acts on a variety of nicotinic receptor subtypes. The relative role and interactions of neuronal nicotinic receptor subtypes for cognition also needs to be better characterized. Nicotine acts on nicotinic receptors in a wide variety of brain areas. The role of some of these areas such as the hippocampus has been relatively well studied but other areas like the thalamus, which has the densest nicotinic receptor concentration are still only partially characterized. In a series of studies we characterized nicotinic receptor actions, anatomic localization and circuit interactions, which are critical to nicotine effects on the cognitive functions of learning, memory and attention. The relative role of increases and decreases in nicotinic receptor activation by nicotine were determined in regionally specific studies of the hippocampus, the amygdala, the frontal cortex and the mediodorsal thalamic nucleus with local infusions of antagonists of nicotinic receptor subtypes (α7 and α4β2). The understanding of the functional neural bases of cognitive function is fundamental to the more effective development of nicotinic drugs for treating cognitive dysfunction.

Keywords: Antagonist; Cognition; Desensitization; Nicotinic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cholinergic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Cholinergic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / drug therapy
  • Gene Expression Regulation / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / genetics
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism*


  • Cholinergic Agents
  • Receptors, Nicotinic