Got nicotine?

Madam Fathom is the pseudonym of a neuroscience PhD student with a weblog about her (I assume it’s a her) field. This is an interesting post about the potential benefits of nicotine that offers a particularly lucid picture of brain function.

“There is a large body of research showing that nicotine, the ingredient that drives people to addiction, improves cognitive function in humans and laboratory animals. The most robust effect demonstrated in human smokers is an enhanced ability to sustain attention to a task for a prolonged period of time, an ability inextricably linked to learning and memory. Of course, learning and memory involve a number of processes (acquisition, encoding, storage, and retrieval), but the ability to concentrate on particular stimuli and screen out the rest is critical for the success of this operation.

Nicotine’s beneficial effects on these “higher” cognitive functions have prompted efforts to develop nicotinic treatments for diseases associated with cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and schizophrenia. However, this area of drug development is impeded by the complexity of nicotine’s actions, including the observation that cognitive improvements have only been reliably detected in either smokers or the cognitively impaired. In contrast, nicotine tends to have deleterious effects on cognitive performance in “normal” non-smokers. (Another factor hampering the development of nicotine-based therapies is that they offer pharmaceutical companies little potential for financial gain, as nicotine sources are easy to come by.)…”