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Does Nicotine Addiction Permanently Change the Brain?

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The war between the tobacco industry and anti-smoking lobby continues. Of late, a new player has entered the battlefield; the e-cig industry. At first sight, e-cigs appear to be the solution for all smokers. All the enjoyment of nicotine without the ill-effects of tar and tobacco.

E-cig consumers often referred to as “vapers”, have been enjoying tobacco-free nicotine consumption for quite some time now. As expected, the “health-lobby” soon put an end to the honeymoon period and started jumping up and down about the ill-effects of nicotine alone.

Everyone knows that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances. Giving up smoking is difficult because of nicotine. But does nicotine pose any health risks? Are we to believe those who protest against “happy, harmless vaping” or those promoting the joys of vaping?

In some countries, the sale of e-cig products to teens is illegal. Why? Because health experts have pointed to the damage nicotine does to the brain. The e-cig industry continues to grow and emphasize that smokers can indulge in their nicotine addiction without having to put up with the downside of tobacco products.

But who are we to believe? Ultimately, it comes down to one simple question; does nicotine damage the brain? Let’s examine what this highly addictive substance does to the brain and see whether it causes permanent damage.

Short-Term Effects of Nicotine on the Brain

Nicotine enters the brain within 20 seconds of inhaling, traveling along the bloodstream. Once it has reached the brain, it begins to stimulate neural activity in the brain. Brain neurons send each other messages.

Nicotine is good at triggering neurons in the part of the brain responsible for motivation and reward. When nicotine stimulates this part of the brain, the brain releases dopamine, a brain chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Dopamine is vital for basic activity as eating, having sex or drinking.

Hence, experts point out that nicotine creates pathways to the reward center of the brain and induces the release of dopamine. Each time nicotine enters the brain, new pathways open up. What experts are pointing out is that after some time, the brain begins to look for nicotine much in the same way as it looks for food or drink.

Because nicotine leaves the body quickly, the brain begins to crave nicotine to maintain the new pathways for dopamine release. Dropping nicotine levels mean dropping dopamine levels. Consequently, the brain begins to “demand” nicotine to keep the dopamine levels steady. And this is why giving up cigarettes is so difficult. The brain wants nicotine and if it doesn’t get it, dopamine levels remain low and the person lacks the feelings of pleasure produced by dopamine.

[Read more about neurotransmitters: 6 Reasons To Add L-Theanine Into Your Busy Life]

A further downside lies within the phenomenon that the brain begins to require more and more nicotine to open up the pathways and keep the dopamine production going. The more nicotine someone consumes, the more their brain will demand.

Long-Term Effects of Nicotine on the Brain

Over time, smokers or vapers become entirely dependent on nicotine. The brain continues to demand increasing amounts of nicotine for the dopamine metabolism. The individual “needs” nicotine to feel a sense of pleasure and reward and finds it nigh impossible to stop.

The longer someone consumes nicotine, the more significant a role nicotine begins to play. Beyond the mere chemical processes occurring in the brain, the person also begins to intertwine nicotine consumption with lifestyle habits.

Smokers reward themselves with cigarettes more and more frequently, like having a smoke after a job done, before taking on a task, before setting off on a journey, when reaching a destination, over a cup of coffee with a friend…..the list of scenarios is endless.

The vaper or smoker happily concocts situations where she/he is allowed a little nicotine-treat as a reward for a task completed or in preparation for an unpleasant job.

Enjoyment, pleasure, and reward become inextricably linked to nicotine consumption, so much so that the smoker/vaper can no longer derive pleasure or reward without having a smoke or a vape.

At that point, the brain is entangled in this web and treats nicotine like a survival substance. There are so many pathways that the brain is completely hooked.

Breaking the Nicotine Habit

Consuming nicotine is now a habit, and habits are hard to break. Because the brain is used to the delivery of nicotine and “needs” it, quitting is extremely difficult. The individual must put up with low dopamine levels and weather strong craving-periods. The brain must learn to look after dopamine release without nicotine once again and does not like it!

People giving up cigarettes generally experience cravings very severely for a few days and struggle for a minimum of one month. Some people may have difficulty coping without nicotine for up to six months.

Apart from re-training the brain to do without nicotine, most people also struggle to break the nicotine=pleasure mentality. They long to smoke while socializing and have to find new ways of seeking pleasure and rewards. Many people end up consuming more food or drink, while others try to get over cravings with substitutes like chewing gum etc.

Because smoking or vaping is in some ways a lifestyle choice, those quitting have to change their habits significantly. They have to learn to tackle a task without having a cigarette first as well as find new ways of rewarding themselves for a task completed.

Nicotine and the Teenage Brain

Experts have pointed out that teenagers become addicted to nicotine much faster and much more deeply than adults. They also fear that the brain is caught up in an addiction pattern that may lead the consumption of significantly harder drugs. To them, nicotine is somewhat of a “gateway drug” and consequently, they sternly warn against allowing teenagers to smoke or vape.

Nicotine Does Change the Brain

The brain does adapt its function to the supply of nicotine, hence nicotine does change the brain. Thankfully, those resilient enough to withstand cravings can soon recover.

 On other addictive substances: why sugar is America's biggest problem


Hi! We’re Team Neuro, aficionados of all things brain-related, from creativity to working out. With backgrounds in art, science, and athletics, we love delving into all the potentials of the human body.


We also created the world's first sugar-free nootropic caffeine gum that utilizes the effects of caffeine and L-theanine, made to help you optimize your mind — anywhere, anytime. Find out more here.

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