Nicotine is known to improve performance on tests involving sustained attention and recent research suggests that nicotine may also improve performance on tests involving the strategic allocation of attention and working memory.
We used measures of accuracy and response latency combined with eye-tracking techniques to examine the effects of nicotine on visual search tasks.
In experiment 1 smokers and non-smokers performed pop-out and serial search tasks. In experiment 2, we used a within-subject design and a more demanding search task for multiple targets. In both studies, 2-h abstinent smokers were asked to smoke one of their own cigarettes between baseline and tests.
In experiment 1, pop-out search times were faster after nicotine, without a loss in accuracy. Similar effects were observed for serial searches, but these were significant only at a trend level. In experiment 2, nicotine facilitated a strategic change in eye movements resulting in a higher proportion of fixations on target letters. If the cigarette was smoked on the first trial (when the task was novel), nicotine additionally reduced the total number of fixations and refixations on all letters in the display.
Nicotine improves visual search performance by speeding up search time and enabling a better focus of attention on task relevant items. This appears to reflect more efficient inhibition of eye movements towards task irrelevant stimuli, and better active maintenance of task goals. When the task is novel, and therefore more difficult, nicotine lessens the need to refixate previously seen letters, suggesting an improvement in working memory.
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Volunteers were recruited from the Psychology database, where there is a 4:1 ratio of female to male undergraduates. There are no indications in the literature of significant gender differences in the cognitive effects of an acute dose of nicotine, therefore gender was not used as a qualifying factor at recruitment.
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This work was completed as part of N. Rycroft’s Ph.D. thesis, funded by a bursary from the BBSRC. Thanks are due to Pennie Ingram for management of the database of volunteers.
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Rycroft, N., Rusted, J.M. & Hutton, S.B. Acute effects of nicotine on visual search tasks in young adult smokers. Psychopharmacology 181, 160–169 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-005-2220-8
- Visual search
- Working memory
- Executive functions