The Effects of Nicotine on Attention Orienting

  • Stamatina Tsiora

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Navigation through the environment requires the ability to select relevant information from a multitude of irrelevant stimuli. Under conditions of processing conflict, attention and cognitive control processes bias sensory input based on internal goals. These processes are supported by the interplay of a fronto-parietal attention network that exerts a top-down influence on information processing and a superior temporal network that operates in parallel and that responds in a stimulus-driven manner to behaviorally salient stimuli. It is often reported that nicotine can enhance top-down attention control and reduce distraction. In experiments 1 and 2, the effects of increasing control demands on behavior were assessed using electrophysiological (EEG) and behavioral measures in an auditory number parity decision task with different levels of distraction. Participants made forced choice ‘odd’ or ‘even’ number decisions, while ignoring preceding or simultaneous novel distractors. A group of non-smokers was compared to overnight abstinent smokers (9 hours) and after nicotine intake via 2 mg nicotine tablet or via smoke-inhaled nicotine. The results revealed that preceding distractors impaired task performance due to orienting to and reorienting from the distractor. Simultaneous distractors did not cause orientation of attention (indicated by absence of a P3a Event-Related Potential) and produced smaller increments in response latencies. However, this type of complex novel stimulus initiated processes of memory updating that significantly impaired response sensitivity and accuracy. Nicotine withdrawal enhanced these distraction effects, whereas nicotine intake, particularly via smoking, normalized performance. In experiment 3, dichotic listening performance in a group of non-smokers was compared to abstinent smokers (12 hours) using behavioral, EEG and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) measures. The perceptual salience of the stimuli was manipulated by systematically varying the Inter-aural Intensity Difference (IID) between them. The analysis pointed to distinct brain networks that differentially activate depending on the level of competition between sensory inputs and these effects were additionally modulated by nicotine withdrawal. Nicotine withdrawal impaired behavioral performance supported by evidence of enhanced use of memory and attention resources, and some evidence of task-independent default mode network activation. Overall, the findings suggest that withdrawal from nicotine, particularly in heavy smokers, is associated with impairments in cognitive control and that subsequent intake of nicotine serves mainly to normalize performance.
    Date of Award2014
    Original languageEnglish
    SponsorsSINAPSE (Scottish Imaging Network: A Platform for Scientific Excellence)
    SupervisorDouglas Potter (Supervisor), Astrid Schloerscheidt (Supervisor) & Cyril Pernet (Supervisor)


    • attention
    • auditory
    • distractibility
    • eeg
    • fMRI
    • nicotine

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