Fortunately, smoking has never appealed to me. A good friend of mine, however, cannot say the same. Jason smoked his first cigarette in 9th grade, at the age of 15—it marked the beginning of his rebellion. He had a reckless disregard for his health and his safety, and so he went on to experiment with alcohol and other drugs. And then he started staying out past curfew every night; he got in trouble for trespassing (several times); he was arrested for stealing; and eventually he landed himself in juvie.

Flash forward eight years, and you’d never guess that Jason was a young delinquent—he’s a calm, thoughtful book-worm who keeps to himself. And the only thing that stuck around from his past are those nicotine-ridden white sticks, which he despises.

Jason wants to stop smoking—in fact, he’s tried every trick in the book: even quitting cold turkey. But nothing ever sticks. He’s managed to go a few months without a cigarette, but he always resorts back. “Why?” “How could you?” I demand. But he’s just as frustrated; he doesn’t understand it either. After years of trial and error, however, Jason just might have his answer, thanks to researchers at Penn State: nicotine withdrawal may hinder working memory and cognitive processing.

Perplexed by the same question—why do most attempts to stop smoking prove unsuccessful?—these researchers explored the roles of reward processing and working memory. Charles Geier, associate professor of human development and family studies and the Dr. Francis Keesler Graham Early Career Professor in Developmental Neuroscience, explains why: simply put, reward processes and working memory both contribute to value-based decisions.

    “While previous studies have shown altered reward and working memory function are independently associated with nicotine exposure, little is known about the effects of nicotine or nicotine withdrawal on the joint function of these systems […] Knowing more about how these processes interact is important to better understand the decisions people make after exposure to nicotine, such as choosing whether or not to continue smoking after a quit attempt, and thus can help inform smoking cessation strategies.”

In order to gain the knowledge they seek, the researchers studied the working memory of 18 daily smokers who were split into different groups. The first group of smokers was evaluated after smoking regularly; and the second was tested after 12 hours of smoking abstinence. In both, the smokers completed a working memory task on the computer: they were to focus on a fixation cross, but also take note of a flashing dot in their peripherals. After a small window of time, the cross disappeared and the subjects then had to move their eyes to the recalled location of the flashing dot.

Geier and his colleagues found that the first group (who smoked regularly prior to testing) showed improvement in working memory when they were monetarily compensated for succeeding—in other words, they remembered the location of the flashing dot more accurately. The other group, however, who abstained from smoking for 12 hours beforehand, did not show that same improvement when monetarily compensated.

These results suggest that when a smoker is deprived of nicotine, they fail to receive the same “reward-related ‘boost’ to their working memory,” according to Geier. “We hope these results shed light on how rewards affect cognitive systems such as working memory, which is critical for our understanding of motivated decision-making.

These data also extend our fundamental understanding of smoking’s effects on core affective and cognitive processes. A next step is to test participants on similar tasks within the functional MRI scanner to investigate the nature of motivated cognitive control at the neural circuit level,” he explains.

Auman-Bauer, K. (2017, December 5). Nicotine withdrawal affects the brain’s cognitive systems, researchers find. Penn State. Retrieved on December 11 2017 from