Improved incidental memory with nicotine after semantic processing, but not after phonological processing


Rationale: A number of lines of evidence suggest that a nicotinic cholinergic system is mediating attentional processing. However, the evidence is less clear for a nicotinic system being involved in mnemonic processing. Objectives: The present study investigated the effects of nicotine on memory using a depth of processing paradigm. Methods: A double-blind design was used with participants (n=40) smoking either a nicotine containing cigarette (n=20) and a denicotinized cigarette (n=20). After smoking, each set of these participants was further subdivided into two groups (n=10 for each). One group were presented with a series of trials each beginning with the presentation of a "decision word" which they had to say whether it represented something which was living or non-living (semantic-orienting). The second group had to say whether the word had one syllable or two syllables (phonological or non-semantic orienting condition). This decision was followed by a word in coloured ink whose colour participants were required to name as quickly as possible. On completion of the whole task the participants were given an unexpected free recall test. Results: The nicotine-containing cigarette reduced the latencies for decision-making and colour naming in comparison with the denicotinized cigarette. The free recall test showed that nicotine-containing cigarette increased the number of words remembered, but only for the semantic-orienting condition and not the non-semantic condition. Conclusions: There is a nicotinic cholinergic system that mediates effortful processing. It can be deployed for attentional processing, including the associative processing required for memory encoding.

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Warburton, D., Skinner, A. & Martin, C. Improved incidental memory with nicotine after semantic processing, but not after phonological processing. Psychopharmacology 153, 258–263 (2001).

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  • Nicotine Cigarette Attention Memory Mental effort