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Clinical EEG & Neuroscience Journal

Journal of Clinical EEG & Neuroscience, January, 2009

Nicotine and Attention: Event-Related Potential Investigations in Nonsmokers

Verner Knott, Dhrasti Shah, Derek Fisher, Anne Millar, Stephanie Prise, Terri Lynn Scott and Mackenzie Thompson


Research into the effects of nicotine and smoking on cognition has largely confirmed the subjective reports of smoking in smokers on mental functions, showing smoking abstinence to disrupt and smoking/nicotine to restore cognitive functioning. Evidence of performance improvements in nonsmokers has provided partial support for the absolute effects of nicotine on cognitive processes, which are independent of withdrawal relief, but the mechanisms underlying its pro-cognitive properties still remain elusive.

The attentional facilitation frequently reported with smoking/nicotine may be indirectly related to its diffuse arousal-enhancing actions, as evidenced by electroencephalographic (EEG) fast frequency power increments, or it may reflect nicotine’s direct modulating effects on specific neural processes governing stimulus encoding, selection and rejection. Event-related potential (ERP) components extracted during the performance of cognitive tasks have proven to be sensitive to early pre-attentive and later attention-dependent processes that are not otherwise reflected in behavioral probes. To date, the majority of ERP studies have been conducted with smokers using passive non-task paradigms or relatively non-demanding “oddball” tasks. This paper will emphasize our recent ERP investigations with acute nicotine polacrilex (6 mg) administered to nonsmokers, and with a battery of ERP and behavioral performance paradigms focusing on intra- and inter-modal selective attention and distraction processes. These ERP findings of nicotine-augmented early attentional processing add support to the contention that nicotine may be be used by smokers as a “pharmacological tool” for tuning cognitive functions relating to the automatic and controlled aspects of sensory input detection and selection.

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