BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

A Brief Look into the Cognitive Impact of Nicotine Vaping Products

Author: Anna Froude

It is no mystery that cigarette smoking is harmful to our lungs and is accompanied by a wide range of health risks. These concerns have been key factors in society's recent shift towards the use of e-cigarette, or vaping products that commonly contain nicotine. Despite the rise in popularity of vaping products, little is known about the long-term effects that these “healthy” smoking alternatives have. However, research has shown that vaping acts as a successful smoking cessation aid for adult populations, with fewer chemical constituents and adverse health effects than traditional cigarettes (Hartmann-Boyce et al., 2020; Xie et al., 2020). Nevertheless, this does not mean that e-cigarettes are harm free.

Vaping products are regularly promoted to adults as an effective tool for quitting traditional cigarette smoking, despite not yet being approved by the US Federal Drug Administration as a safe smoking cessation method (Hanewinkel et al., 2022). In fact, the consumption of nicotine, often a primary ingredient in e-cigarettes, has been shown to impair cognitive functions in adult populations (Levin, 2013; Xie et al., 2020). Considering the effects of nicotine on the prefrontal cortex (heavily involved in attention and other neurocognitive functions) in particular, research has shown that exposure to nicotine during early adulthood can extend beyond acute effects to longer-lasting impairments (Xie et al., 2020). Additionally, through the modulation of pathways involved in stress response, anxiety and depression, nicotine may result in increased anxiety, stress, and depression (Picciotto et al., 2002). Moreover, in comparison to current cigarette smokers, e-cigarette consumers that have never engaged in traditional cigarette smoking have higher levels of subjective cognitive complaints (Xie et al., 2020). While these findings were not statistically significant, they suggest that (1) e-cigarette usage is associated with cognitive complaints that are similar to traditional cigarette smoking, and (2) the cognitive complaints associated with e-cigarette use are independent of traditional cigarette smoking history (Xie et al., 2020).

However, some studies suggest that nicotine in low doses may actually improve cognitive functions, (Levin, 2013; Xie et al., 2020). Moreover, clinical trials of the neurocognitive effects of nicotine, among adult populations have shown potentially cognitive-enhancing effects, such as improved fine motor skills, attention, as well as both working and episodic memory (Valentine & Sofuoglu, 2018).


It is important to note that vaping been linked with both the initiation and escalation of cigarette smoking among younger populations, as well as having significant undesirable effects on the developing brain (Mahajan et al., 2021). In particular, long-term nicotine dependence can result in changes in neuroplasticity, which raises concern regarding nicotine's potential to change the trajectory of neurodevelopment (Farber et al., 2015; Mahajan et al., 2021). These findings are particularly concerning for young adults, since human brains are not fully developed until our mid-20s (Arain et al., 2013).


How Can These Concerns be Addressed?

Nicotine replacement therapy options such as nicotine patches, gum, nasal sprays, mouth sprays, as well as a combination of these products have been widely used to help treat nicotine addiction (Hanewinkel et al., 2022). Though to achieve the most optimal treatment outcomes among nicotine-vaping populations, individualized pharmacotherapy treatments in combination with cognitive-behavioural counselling have been recommended (Mahajan et al., 2021). Additional, and more cost-effective, nicotine dependence treatment options include helplines aimed at helping people quit smoking and/or vaping, as well as other telehealth alternatives.

If you are interested in seeking help for smoking cessation telehealth options, please see the information provided below:

Canadian tollfree number to help quit smoking is:


Provincial and territorial-specific telehealth and support services in Canada can be found at the link below:


While vaping products have been marketed as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, research has shown that they are not without risk. It is important to be aware of the potential health risks associated with nicotine vaping products, particularly concerning cognitive functions, so that you can make informed decisions about your health and well-being.


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Farber, H. J., Walley, S. C., Groner, J. A., Nelson, K. E., & Section on Tobacco Control. (2015). Clinical Practice Policy to Protect Children From Tobacco, Nicotine, and Tobacco Smoke. Pediatrics, 136(5), 1008–1017.

Hanewinkel, R., Niederberger, K., Pedersen, A., Unger, J. B., & Galimov, A. (2022). E-cigarettes and nicotine abstinence: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. European Respiratory Review, 31(163), 210215.

Hartmann-Boyce, J., McRobbie, H., Lindson, N., Bullen, C., Begh, R., Theodoulou, A., Notley, C., Rigotti, N. A., Turner, T., Butler, A. R., & Hajek, P. (2020). Electronic cigarettes for smoking cessation. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 10(10), CD010216.

Levin E. D. (2013). Complex relationships of nicotinic receptor actions and cognitive functions. Biochemical Pharmacology, 86(8), 1145–1152.

Mahajan, S. D., Homish, G. G., & Quisenberry, A. (2021). Multifactorial Etiology of Adolescent Nicotine Addiction: A Review of the Neurobiology of Nicotine Addiction and Its Implications for Smoking Cessation Pharmacotherapy. Frontiers in Public Health, 9, 664748.

Picciotto, M. R., Brunzell, D. H., & Caldarone, B. J. (2002). Effect of nicotine and nicotinic receptors on anxiety and depression. Neuroreport, 13(9), 1097–1106.

Valentine, G., & Sofuoglu, M. (2018). Cognitive Effects of Nicotine: Recent Progress. Current Neuropharmacology, 16(4), 403–414.

Xie, Z., Ossip, D. J., Rahman, I., O'Connor, R. J., & Li, D. (2020). Electronic Cigarette Use and Subjective Cognitive Complaints in Adults. PloS one, 15(11), e0241599.