Nicotine and the adolescent brain

J Physiol. 2015 Aug 15;593(16):3397-412. doi: 10.1113/JP270492. Epub 2015 Jun 23.


Adolescence encompasses a sensitive developmental period of enhanced clinical vulnerability to nicotine, tobacco, and e-cigarettes. While there are sociocultural influences, data at preclinical and clinical levels indicate that this adolescent sensitivity has strong neurobiological underpinnings. Although definitions of adolescence vary, the hallmark of this period is a profound reorganization of brain regions necessary for mature cognitive and executive function, working memory, reward processing, emotional regulation, and motivated behavior. Regulating critical facets of brain maturation are nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs). However, perturbations of cholinergic systems during this time with nicotine, via tobacco or e-cigarettes, have unique consequences on adolescent development. In this review, we highlight recent clinical and preclinical data examining the adolescent brain's distinct neurobiology and unique sensitivity to nicotine. First, we discuss what defines adolescence before reviewing normative structural and neurochemical alterations that persist until early adulthood, with an emphasis on dopaminergic systems. We review how acute exposure to nicotine impacts brain development and how drug responses differ from those seen in adults. Finally, we discuss the persistent alterations in neuronal signaling and cognitive function that result from chronic nicotine exposure, while highlighting a low dose, semi-chronic exposure paradigm that may better model adolescent tobacco use. We argue that nicotine exposure, increasingly occurring as a result of e-cigarette use, may induce epigenetic changes that sensitize the brain to other drugs and prime it for future substance abuse.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Development / drug effects*
  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / physiology
  • Humans
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Nicotinic Agonists / pharmacology*


  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Nicotine