Cigarette smoking sharpens short-term learning and memory among young people, but the slight improvement comes at a high risk of heart disease, cancer and a shortened life span, researchers say.
The finding’s real value may lie in providing clues about how to treat nicotine addiction, researchers said.
In an effort to pinpoint the precise effects on the brain of nicotine from cigarettes, researchers at the University of California at San Diego tested young smokers and non-smokers at a word game that required rapid memory and quick recall.
Both groups of 12 had electrodes attached to their heads to record brain waves.
“It is clear that there was a lot more processing going on in the brains of smokers when compared with non-smokers,” said Jaime Pineda, lead author of a study presented Tuesday at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
Smokers were quicker and more accurate in specifying whether or not a certain word was part of a set of five words that had been flashed on a screen shortly before. That is a powerful test of working memory.
“Working memory also has been called ‘scratch pad memory’ because it is when the brain needs to remember things only for a short period of time and then wipes them out,” Pineda said.
The enhanced performance of the smokers was evident even after they had abstained from cigarettes for 12 hours, Pineda said.
The researcher emphasized, however, that the slight advantage does not justify the risks of smoking.
Smoking is the major cause of lung cancer and has been linked to other cancers, emphysema and cardiovascular disease. Despite all those known health effects, scientists still are uncertain about nicotine’s effects on the brain. Understanding how cigarettes affect the brain may help find ways of breaking the addiction.