Smoking is Good For You!*

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 *Um, not really.

But nicotine does enhance our ability to think, perform and take tests. Thanks to new research, scientists now know it increases our memory function, too.

Up to now, results about nicotine's effects on boosting human performance were mixed. Dr. Stephen Heishman, a scientist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (part of the National Institutes of Health) said that in the past, researchers kept doing studies on the effects of nicotine and human performance without taking into account the drug's harsh withdrawal effects. Instead, they'd ask subjects to go eight or 12 hours without smoking before testing their brain functions. He says it wasn't surprising that as soon as nicotine was administered in those cases, performance improved.

"Without knowing what their baseline level of performance is, you can't really say whether that increase is a true increase or whether you're just bringing that person back to their baseline," Heishman told Discovery News. "Those early studies didn't provide the pre-deprivation performance, [as in], what's their performance when they're normally smoking?"

So Heishman and his colleagues studied all the literature they could find on nicotine and performance published between 1994 and 2008. In all, they reviewed and coded 41 studies and looked at how nicotine affected everything from fine motor skills to short term memory. Their results were published online in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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What they found surprised them. Not only does the drug help with fine motor skills and alertness, it improves short term memory for tasks like remembering a list of items.

"We knew that the effect on attention was well known, but I was somewhat surprised about the effects on memory," Heishman said. "Smokers say that one of the reasons that they smoke is to help them concentrate, focus on tasks and do their work, and obviously a lot of our daily work involves memory. So on the other hand, I guess it shouldn't be too surprising."

Having a better understanding of nicotine's effects, including withdrawal effects, can lead to more effective quitting tactics, Heishman said. If we know that nicotine is the reason why we feel more alert when we smoke, for example, developing medicines that mimic nicotine's role can make quitting seem like less of an impossible task.

Image from Flickr