Rationale: Electrophysiological studies show that systemic nicotine narrows frequency receptive fields and increases gain in neural responses to characteristic frequency stimuli. We postulated that nicotine enhances related auditory processing in humans.
Objectives: The main hypothesis was that nicotine improves auditory performance. A secondary hypothesis was that the degree of nicotine-induced improvement depends on the individual's baseline performance.
Methods: Young (18-27 years old), normal-hearing nonsmokers received nicotine (Nicorette gum, 6mg) or placebo gum in a single-blind, randomized, crossover design. Subjects performed four experiments involving tone-in-noise detection, temporal gap detection, spectral ripple discrimination, and selective auditory attention before and after treatment. The perceptual differences between posttreatment nicotine and placebo conditions were measured and analyzed as a function of the pre-treatment baseline performance.
Results: Nicotine significantly improved performance in the more difficult tasks of tone-in-noise detection and selective attention (effect size = - 0.3) but had no effect on relatively easier tasks of temporal gap detection and spectral ripple discrimination. The two tasks showing significant nicotine effects further showed no baseline-dependent improvement.
Conclusions: Nicotine improves auditory performance in difficult listening situations. The present results support future investigation of nicotine effects in clinical populations with auditory processing deficits or reduced cholinergic activation.
Keywords: Acetylcholinergic systems; Auditory processing; Nicotine; Selective attention; Spectral ripple discrimination; Temporal gap detection; Tone in noise detection.