Neural mechanisms underlying nicotine dependence

Addiction. 1994 Nov;89(11):1419-23. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.1994.tb03738.x.


There is little doubt that many habitual smokers find it difficult to quit the habit because they have become addicted to the nicotine present in the smoke. This paper addresses some of the pharmacological mechanisms underlying this addiction and discusses how an understanding of these mechanisms may contribute to the more effective use of nicotine replacement therapy during smoking cessation. It considers critically the evidence that the "rewarding" properties of nicotine, which serve to reinforce drug-seeking behaviour, are related to stimulation of the mesolimbic dopamine system of the brain. The critique focuses specifically on the evidence that many central nicotinic receptors, including those which mediate the effects of the drug on dopamine secretion, are readily desensitized by chronic exposure to agonist and that hypotheses which assume that nicotine inhaled from tobacco smoke invariably results in stimulation of the receptors must be treated with caution. Nicotinic receptors in the brain are, however, heterogeneous in nature with different molecular structures and pharmacologies. It is concluded that the reinforcing properties of nicotine sought by smokers may reflect both stimulation and desensitization of the different nicotinic receptor populations, and that smokers may adjust their smoking habits to achieve the balance of receptor stimulation and desensitization which they find most reinforcing. It seems likely that the efficacy of the different nicotine formulations during the treatment of smoking cessation may also reflect their ability to stimulate or desensitize brain nicotinic receptors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Drug Tolerance / physiology
  • Humans
  • Nicotine* / adverse effects
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / physiology
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Smoking / physiopathology*
  • Smoking / psychology
  • Smoking Cessation / psychology
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / physiopathology


  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • Nicotine
  • Dopamine