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Positive effects of nicotine on cognition: the deployment of attention for prospective memory

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

J M Rusted, R Sawyer, C Jones, S L Trawley, N L Marchant

Original languageEnglish
Article numberN/A
Pages (from-to)93-102
Number of pages10
Issue number1-3
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2009

King's Authors


Human and animal studies over the last two decades report that nicotine can improve cognitive performance. Prospective memory (PM), the retrieval and implementation of a previously encoded intention, is also improved by pre-administration of nicotine. As with other nicotine effects, however, predicting precisely how and when nicotine improves the processes engaged by PM has proved less straightforward.

We present two studies that explore the source of nicotine’s enhancement of PM. Experiment 1 tests for effects of nicotine on preparatory attention (PA) for PM target detection. Experiment 2 asks whether nicotine enhances processing of the perceptual attributes of the PM targets.

Materials and methods
Young adult non-smokers matched on baseline performance measures received either 1 mg nicotine or matched placebo via nasal spray. Volunteers completed novel PM tasks at 15 min post-administration.

Experiment 1 confirmed that pre-administration of nicotine to non-smokers improved detection rate for prospective memory targets presented during an attention-demanding ongoing task. There was no relationship between PM performance and measures of preparatory attention. In experiment 2, salient targets were more likely to be detected than non-salient targets, but nicotine did not confer any additional advantage to salient targets.

The present study suggests that nicotinic stimulation does not work to enhance perceptual salience of target stimuli (experiment 2), nor does it work through better deployment of preparatory working attention (experiment 1). An alternative explanation that nicotine promotes PM detection by facilitating disengagement from the ongoing task is suggested as a future line of investigation.

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