• Rita Hitching

Your brain on drugs...nicotine and its impact

Updated: Feb 18



Do you recall our previous conversation on the impact of caffeine on the teenage brain back in November? Well, I had promised to discuss other stimulants and their impact on the brain. Today I want to talk to you about the impact of nicotine on your brain. Research has shown that some teenagers start to smoke due to peer pressure, their parents smoking or because they want to push boundaries. I’m not here to simply advise “just say no!”, I’m here to tell you the impact of nicotine has on your developing brain, so you can make up your own mind about what to do and when someone offers you a puff of a cigarette or even has a vaping device around.


Your teenage brain is glorious — if you didn’t know that already. Neuroscience has shown that the brain goes through critical periods of growth and development — while in the womb, the first year of life, and the early years, right into adulthood. What scientists have more recently discovered is that the brain undergoes a ‘secret mission’ of change during the period between the ages of 12 to 19 years that is truly unique.


As I mentioned before the most widely used psychoactive substances are caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and cannabis. Some substances have a minimum age requirement and others do not. Many people wrongly assume that some psychoactive substances are benign with minimal impact on the teenage brain. Neuroscience has a special perspective to offer on understanding how your teenage brain is affected by these psychoactive substances. The brain responds differently to different types of psychoactive chemicals. Caffeine and nicotine function primarily as brain stimulants, alcohol as depressants, opioids as pain relievers, and cannabis as a hallucinogen. Nicotine comes in many forms, typically - cigarettes, e-cigarettes, chewing tobacco and snuff, pipes, and dissolvable tobacco lozenges.


Nicotine & Your Body

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC Monographs) is responsible for researching and identifying environmental factors that are carcinogenic (i.e. cancer-producing) and hazards to humans. IARC has technically not listed nicotine as a carcinogen, however, significant research is emerging on the harmful impact of nicotine on the body and brain.


Studies conducted on a large scale and over long time periods, tracking the health outcomes of people that smoke has shown a strong relationship between nicotine use and an increased risk of: cardiovascular (heart), respiratory (lungs), gastrointestinal (bowel and gut), and reproductive health (pregnancy / sexual dysfunction) disorders.




The body has a system of preventing toxins from entering the brain, known as the blood-brain barrier - with the function of protecting the brain from being damaged by substances carried in the blood. However, nicotine is processed in the adrenal medulla (at the top of your kidneys) and your liver and is able to enter the central nervous system (CNS) and connect to nicotine acetylcholine receptions (nAchRs) in the brain, causing a release of adrenaline and dopamine. Nicotine reaches the brain typically within 7-10 seconds of it entering your system, and you can feel it's effects within about 60 seconds. you could be.


Nicotine functions as a general immune suppressant, making you sick more often, and reducing the strength of your body at recovering from illness. Nicotine disrupts sleep, and as you may recall from my previous post on sleep - sleep issues impact your body's ability to grow, repair itself, and contributes to psychiatric disorders.


Nicotine & Your Brain

The impact of nicotine on the brain is starting to emerge, and with the advent of new research methods are providing clearer relationships between the impact of the chemical on the developing brain. The unique ability of nicotine to enter the body rapidly via your lungs when you inhale it, means it can travel in the bloodstream via the oxygenated blood your lungs delivers to the heart, and your heart pumps throughout your body.


The body has a system of preventing toxins from entering the brain, known as the blood-brain barrier - with the function of protecting the brain from being damaged by substances carried in the blood. However, nicotine is processed in the adrenal medulla (at the top of your kidneys) and your liver, and is able to enter the central nervous system (CNS) and connect to nicotine acetylcholine receptions (nAchRs) in brain, causing a release of adrenaline and dopamine. Nicotine reaches the brain typically within 7-10 seconds of it entering your system, and you can feel it's effects within about 60 seconds.


The difficulty with early-onset smoking and the malleability of your teenage brain is that it increases your likelihood of finding it more difficult to give up smoking once you start.

The more you smoke the more you stimulate the dopamine receptors in your brain, causing them to become desensitized over time, and requiring you to smoke more, and more often to feel good again.


The teenage brain is so beautifully tuned, like a new car, that nicotine receptors respond very quickly and you can become addicted to nicotine within 1-2 days.


There is strong evidence that teenagers that smoke is at a greater risk of ns are typically more interested in smoking. The relationship between teenagers tha substances: namely alcohol, and cannabis on other blog posts. Now that you understand the negative impact of nicotine on your glorious brain and growing body, you can decide if that’s something you want to expose your body and brain too. shown that smoking during adolescence increases your risk of developing various psychiatric disorders.

Nicotine stimulates your developing prefrontal cortex (PFC) - affecting your thought processes and impacting your visual system.


The molecular changes induced by exposing your brain to nicotine alters the functioning of your synapses in the pre-frontal cortex, resulting in lasting reductions to your cognitive function. Basically, smoking impairs your ability to see and think. Research has also shown that a teenager that smokes is more likely to suffer from an attention deficit disorder, and this is worsened the longer that you smoke.


Nicotine has an impact on your brain's ability to make and retain memories. Brain imaging studies are showing that smoking causes neurons to die, and areas of the brain to become damaged - primarily the prefrontal cortex (PFC), hippocampus, and thalamus. In addition, nicotine prevents the dentate gyrus from forming new brain cells/neurons. The impact on lower neuronal generation may explain why smokers typically have lower IQs than non-smokers.

Some teenagers that might be trying to cope with negative feelings or emotions, are typically more interested in smoking. The relationship between teenagers that start smoking young, and psychiatric disorders is unclear, but it seems as though nicotine disrupts the normal course of brain maturation, and is having lasting consequences for your mental health, and even your personality. Research has shown that smoking during adolescence increases your risk of developing various psychiatric disorders.


There is strong evidence that teenagers that smoke are at a greater risk of depression, and all smokers regardless of age show more depressive symptoms than non-smokers, and depressed people have a harder time giving up smoking.


Overall, the research shows that nicotine is damaging to the body, and in particular to the developing teenage brain. We will discuss the other 2 psychoactive substances: namely alcohol, and cannabis on other blog posts. Now that you understand the negative impact of nicotine on your glorious brain and growing body, you can decide if that’s something you want to expose your body and brain to.


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