Nicotine formula on blackboard with inhaler and stethoscope. Nicotine formula on blackboard with inhaler and stethoscope.

Why Does the Brain Confuse Nicotine for Acetylcholine?

Nicotine, the main ingredient in tobacco, makes you crave for it and deprssed when you try to stop it (withdrawal). It acts like other addictive drugs, especially ones that make you think better.

Nicotine works by attaching to special receptors in your brain called “nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.” This boosts different signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitter acetylcholine and another called “dopamine,” makes you feel good.

This good feeling, according to scientists, makes you crave nicotine and keep using it, even though it’s bad for you. Some other brain chemicals also play a role in this.

1. How Nicotine Affects the Brain? – Why Does the Brain Confuse Nicotine for Acetylcholine?

Nicotine copies the work of certain messengers in the brain. This is because it has the same shape as one of the messengers. The messengers are known as neurotransmitters, and specifically, we are talking about acetylcholine. Nicotine also activates signals related to pleasure, particularly dopamine, making you feel good.

Nicotine mimics due to the shape similarity which is accepted by the nicotinic receptors, and as time goes on, the brain adapts to the increased activity by decreasing the number of acetylcholine receptors, which leads to a tolerance to nicotine; so you need more to feel the same effects.

Nicotine Chemical Formula Blackboard
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Nicotine also triggers the brain’s pleasure zones, acting like dopamine, so your brain links using nicotine with feeling happy because nicotine binds with nicotine receptors. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, smoking and inhaling nicotine changes your brain, causing withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit and this can bring about other side effects like anxiety, irritability, and a strong urge for nicotine.

Regrettably, when these symptoms hit, many people light up another cigarette to ease withdrawal effects.

The brain changes caused by this cycle create a reliance on nicotine because your body gets used to having it, turning it into an addiction that can be tough to break.

woman smoking cigarette
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Although the effects of nicotine on the brain may take time to notice, problems related to the heart and lungs are usually the first signs a smoker might observe.

2. Nicotinic Agonists

Nicotinic agonists are not commonly used in treating animals. The typical nicotinic agonist, which is nicotine itself, is used by people for recreation in various ways.

When used in amounts typically taken for fun, there’s usually little to no impact on certain nerve connections in the body. 

Small doses of nicotine stimulate the release of many brain chemicals, creating a feeling of alertness.

nicotine chemical structure 3D model
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However, taking higher doses of nicotine reverses this stimulating effect. Side effects in the body may include a faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, and reduced movement in the gut. 

The light-headed sensation, as some new smokers feel, is because nicotine activates certain nerve receptors, especially those in the carotid body.

3. Side Effects of Nicotine

Nicotine consumption has ill effects on the adrenal glands, limbic system, and peripheral nervous system. Here are some common ways that nicotine addiction and smoking can affect the brain.

3.1. Cognitive Decline

As you grow older, it’s normal for memory and thinking abilities to decline somewhat.

Alzheimers Disease Concept Illustration
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Smoking, however, can speed up this decline, especially in men and studies has proved that middle-aged male smokers experienced faster cognitive decline than nonsmokers or female smokers.

3.2. Increased Risk of Dementia

Smokers have a higher risk of developing dementia, a condition affecting memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior, and research comparing smokers and nonsmokers found that smokers were 30 percent more likely to develop dementia.

Quitting smoking reduced this risk to that of a nonsmoker.

elderly man using microwave
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3.3. Loss of Brain Volume:

The longer you smoke, the greater your risk of age-related brain volume loss.

Smoking negatively affects the structure of certain brain regions, leading to more significant age-related volume loss compared to nonsmokers.

brain fog concept mental health
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3.4. Higher Risk of Stroke

Smokers face a higher likelihood of experiencing a stroke compared to nonsmokers and smoking increases the risk of stroke two to four times in both men and women. Quitting smoking can significantly reduce this risk within five years.

Senior Man Fallen At Home Prevention Tips
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3.5. Higher Risk of Cancer

Smoking introduces harmful chemicals into the brain and body, some of which can cause cancer and continued exposure to tobacco smoke can lead to genetic changes in the lungs, throat, or brain, increasing the risk of developing cancer.

Smoking cessation/ nicotine withdrawal is a positive step in reducing this risk.

4. Can Quitting Smoking Make a Difference? 

Stopping nicotine can be good for your brain and other body parts. A study done in 2018 found that people who quit smoking for a long time had a lower risk of dementia.

Another study showed that quitting smoking can lead to positive changes in the structure of the brain’s cortex, although it may take some time.

The Mayo Clinic says that when you quit completely, the number of nicotinic receptors in your brain will go back to normal, and cravings should lessen.

smoker vs nonsmoker lungs comparison
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Besides benefiting your brain, quitting smoking can also have positive effects on the rest of your body, like bringing the levels of carbon monoxide in your blood back to normal within 12 hours. 

Also, it improves your circulation and lung function within 3 months, cut your risk of a heart attack by 50 percent within a year, and reduce your stroke risk to that of a nonsmoker within 5 to 15 years. 

5. What can Make Quitting Easier? 

Quitting smoking can be challenging, but it’s possible. Here are some steps to help you stay nicotine-free for life:

  • Talk to your doctor: Get advice from a healthcare provider to create a plan for dealing with withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
  • Nicotine replacement therapies: Consider using medications like nicotine gum, patches, or lozenges, and your doctor might recommend a prescription for a nicotine inhaler, nasal spray, or medication that blocks the effects of nicotine in the brain.
stop smoking aids nicotine patch gum
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  • Counseling support: Individual or group counseling can provide support for dealing with cravings and withdrawal symptoms, especially when others are facing similar challenges.
  • Relaxation techniques: Techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can help you relax and handle stress while quitting.
  • Lifestyle modifications: Regular exercise, quality sleep, time with friends and family, and engaging in hobbies can support your goals of quitting smoking. 

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