The Short and Long Term Effects of Nicotine on the Brain.


Smoking Causes Chemical Dependency to Nicotine.

When you smoke, nicotine enters the blood stream and reaches the brain within ten to twenty seconds. Nicotine then binds to neural receptors and activates neural activity in the brain. (Neurons become active and pass on messages that will activate other neurons.)

Nicotine Receptors

The neurons triggered by nicotine are all connected to larger neural networks, such as those contained within the primal area of the brain known as the Basal Ganglia. One such network of neurons within the Basal Ganglia is of particular importance when it comes to understanding nicotine addiction, the human brain’s motivational reward system.

Once triggered into action, the reward center releases into the brain, the chemical dopamine. A chemical that causes us to feel pleasure and satisfaction. The reward center of the brain influences our behaviors and is typically called into action whenever we perform basic survival functions like eating, drinking or having sex.

Nicotine on The Brain

Each time nicotine is received, the brain’s reward center is activated and the behavior of smoking is again reinforced as being a positive experience. After a few cigarettes, stronger neural pathways which expect the delivery of nicotine begin to develop throughout the brain. Over time, the brain begins to treat nicotine as necessary for our survival, not unlike food and water.

Given that nicotine leaves the body quickly, the brain needs access to a constant supply of nicotine in order to fill the receptors that keep the dopamine pathways active. As nicotine levels drop, so do dopamine levels. The outcome of this is the physical sensation we refer to as cravings for nicotine and the cigarettes that provide it.

To make matters worse, a process called up-regulation occurs the moment you start smoking. Up-regulation is when the number of receptors on a neurons dendrites increase. This means that more nicotine is required for a neuron to trigger the pathways that lead to the reward centre of the brain and release dopamine. The more you smoke, the more often you will need to smoke in order to maintain a satisfied feeling.

The Long Term Effect of Nicotine Addiction.

Once a smoker is chemically dependent on nicotine, the addiction progressively worsens. As time goes on, neural pathways begin to link cigarettes to more and more behaviors or actions that occur in the outside world.

Not only do these pathways grow in number, they are continuously reinforced and grow in strength. Eventually, the brain develops an incredibly strong and complex web of neural pathways that form connections to almost every emotion and external scenario imaginable.


Nicotine Addiction Hijacks Neural Networks


A packet a day, twenty year smoker, has advanced chronic brain disease. Giving up the smokes is a lot more complicated than simply choosing to not light up. Thankfully, as with any treatable disease, a choice to seek treatment and undergo a healing process can lead to recovery.

In the final tutorial, we will explore the wonder of plasticity and down-regulation, and how by promoting these physiological events, a path to recovery is 100% achievable.

The below You Tube clips further demonstrate how addiction works.




Next Tutorial.

The Path To Nicotine Addiction Recovery.

Previous Tutorial.

Neurons, Neural Networks and Neural Pathways.

Additional Links





  1. First of all, thank you so much for this site. It really makes quitting easier when you understand what is happening in your brain. Wanted to ask a question though, and it is purely to try and further my understanding of how nicotine effects the reward system.

    In Allen Carrs book he writes that the Nicotine craving and perceived enjoyment of the cigarette is only a relieving of withdrawal pangs. And that once the nicotine is out of your body there is no “actual” pleasure you receive from it, other than an “illusionary” psychological boost. And reading your site it seems that long term usage does in fact change how the reward centre reacts to nicotine. So my question is this: If you were to take a perfectly healthy 40 year old, one who has never had a single dose of nicotine in his life, and have that person smoke a single cigarette, would that person receive the same reaction in the reward centre as a long time addicted smoker would? And would that single cigarette even give that person a reaction in the reward centre at all?

    I apologize for the strange nature of my question, I just want to fully understand how the drug works, in order to further help me kick this nasty addiction. Thanks again for this website, and thank you for your time.

    • Hi Greg,

      Thanks for your comment and question…

      The use of nicotine physically affects the reward system and does so from the very first puff. Continued use, allows nicotine to hijack areas of the brain connected to the reward center, resulting in the chemical dependence to nicotine, which causes the addict to hunger (withdrawal) for nicotine and cigarettes when nicotine levels drop.

      I think the pleasure of satisfaction gained for a long term smoker, would indeed be more intense, simply because they are relieving a strong chemical withdrawal and need to smoke. Not unlike a person who suffers hunger pangs, gains more satisfaction from the act of eating and fulfilling the need to eat, than someone who is not so hungry.

      I would not suggest the pleasure is an “illusion,” that vanishes once nicotine leaves the body. However, cravings will weaken as the neural connections associated with them, metabolize and break down due to inactivity and down regulation. Cravings can be physically observed, measured and predicted. They are also the most critical part of the healing process.

      So in short, while a first time smoker will receive a dopamine hit and feel a relatively minor sense of satisfaction, (as you might with say a… sugary sweet) they won’t feel the effects of withdrawal (Cravings) and the intense satisfaction that comes with relieving that withdrawal…. until they become addicted.

      I touch on this in a bit more detail in this you tube clip…

      Hope that helps some!
      Thanks 🙂

  2. Hey,
    i started smoking some 6 months back and i am 21. First it started as just a group activity, then i started taking them alone. In 3-4 months i smoked a packet or two in a day. I now smoke on average some 4-5 of ’em. Just wanted to ask how much damage have i suffered till now, just a little idea. And does it also effect other part of brain like pons or cerebellum. I found some of the behavioral pattern in a friend who has assosiated some normal activity with cigerettes. So just curious, i wanna leave ’em so it would help me.

  3. Catharina says:

    I am 69 years old, and still fairly healthy. I have been smoking off and on since I was 14, the longest pauses being while I was pregnant (2X) and for 4 years from 2004 to 2010. Since I started again in 2010, I have had many many failed attempts, to the point of my family and friends saying “Stop the psychodrama!”
    Just now, I’m coughing and wheezing and full of self-loathing, and I had managed to not smoke for 2 days (relatively easily) and then I read that if one is a long-term heavy smoker (a pack a day) your dopamine receptors are irreparably damaged. And I just went and bought cigs because if my little dopamine buggers are dead, how will I fully recover? I do hope you read this and send me an answer.
    PS This is a great page.

    • Hi Catharina,

      Your brain is not irreparably damaged. The brain’s plasticity is what allows it to heal. I think the best thing to do is sit down and have a good talk to your doctor/GP. These days there is a an enormous amount of science behind addiction recovery. It takes time. I was a heavy smoker for 25 years and have been free for over 4 years now and my brain is better than ever!

  4. Christopher Hill says:

    Does wineing yourself off of cigarettes just as effective as quitting cold turkey?

  5. Christopher Hill says:

    I been smoking 15 years would love to quit!!! I can tell how it’s affecting my breathing and sleeping and overall health at just age 29,so that’s why I asked the question above.

    • Johnsmith says:

      That is how I quit. I would say, start slow. It is very easy to cut one cigarette over a week or two but if that is impossible, try a month. Even if you cut down 10 in 10 months, that is progress. But I found it was completely feasible to cut 1 a week until i was having one here and there and realizing that they made me feel terrible anyway and why was I smoking them? You can relapse, that is the hard part. Try to give in to the temptation, knowing that you can get hooked again. But it is very feasible. The way I cut is, if you smoke 20, try for 19 until you can do so comfortably. Then, try for 18 etc. I say a week, but when I did it, i tried to increase the process and was probably smoke free a little faster, but be patient with yourself.

  6. Bonnie Blackie says:


    I stopped smoking four days ago after 20 years of 20 a day. I am using 2mg Lozenges and 16mg cartomizers for my e cigarette. I plan to stop the lozenges at the end of the week. How long should I keep using the e cigarette, how do I reduce usage without relapsing and what effect does NRT have on the recovery timeline? Great site by the way, thanks for all your hard work!

    • Hi.

      2 months without answer, so let me share my current knowledge since I am on the same boat and I am researching the same things.

      NRT delay recovery but reduce withdrawal symptoms so they allow you to be more functional during the time it takes for balance to reestablish. The exact timeline is something I am also researching but it seems like it takes a few days of strong smoking (20 per day) to change your brain, but at least 6 weeks to change it back once you quit. The key is nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Nicotine initially binds to these receptors but at higher levels it deactivates them for some time. If you smoke pretty frequently, then for a long time every day many of these receptors are deactivated. The body tries to compensate with the production of extra receptors, a process that is fairly quick, and the end result is that you actually need more nicotine to have the same functionality, also that your side effects are stronger when you are off nicotine for some time, say for the night or for 3 hours during the day.

      Once you quit, it takes more than 6 weeks for the body to reduce the number of those receptors to normalise: Obviously, with NRT this time is prolonged. This is how far I have reached so far (also keep in mind that women function differently than men when they are smokers).

      So my current conclusions are the following:
      – If I reduce my peak concentrations of nicotine, then my brain will have weaker reasons to up-regulate nicotinic receptors. This means mainly that I need to smoke smaller or weaker cigarettes, and if I use ecig I need to limit my number of puffs per time.
      – If I prolong the intervals in which I am nicotine-free (or relative free) then my brain will have stronger reasons to down-regulate those receptors. I need to remember that up-regulation is a lot faster than down-regulation, so a few days of persistent effort can more than be offset by one single partying night.
      – The stronger the withdrawal symptoms, the faster the brain recovers. But, even with milder withdrawal symptoms, if I am consistent and do not relapse I will enjoy a slower recovery.
      – The 3rd day of instant quit is a hell, but this also happens with cocaine, so perhaps it is due to dopamine. Lack of concentration, perhaps inability to work and other annoying symptoms take place once one abruptly quits but some of them are due to the brain reducing its blood flow in order to counteract the increased activity of nicotinic receptors.
      – Smoking somehow reduces MAO A activity by perhaps 1/4. This produces an antidepressant effect (or perhaps hypomanic, depending on the individual and the circumstances) which is pretty pleasurable for a long time. Obviously, quitting produces the opposite effect: depression in some people, slower thinking in others, that can last for perhaps even months. No idea what NRT does in this department, but from personal experience I suspect that nicotine is mainly or partly causing this.
      – Keep in mind that nicotine speeds up caffeine metabolism (reduces its half time by half), so monitor your caffeine consumption: cut it by half (gradually of course) and drink your last coffee a lot earlier in the day or you may have trouble sleeping.

      Good luck to both of us. I had good success with ecig but unfortunately something happened and I am back to 1/4 of cigarettes I used to smoke. This something probably has to do with caffeine increasing my anxiety and reducing my coping abilities. Please remember that during this time you should use nicotine only as a means to reduce unpleasant effects due to nicotine cravings, and not as a means to get pleasure, or completely take away those unpleasant effects. Do not use it for fighting anxiety and unfortunate events; find other safer solution for whatever you experience. Again, good luck.

  7. Chris Keller says:

    Have smoked for 50+ years, breathing being compromised.
    Took 3 years to cut back from +2 packs of cigarettes a day to about 1 pack a day (2013-2016). Went to NRT for about 4 weeks, but was still smoking 2-3 cigarettes a day. Went to hypnotist to quit with no NRT. This was July 18 2016. Today is Aug 9 2016 (22 days) and I find the cravings very strong and consistent.
    Found this website and reading about what has and is happening to my brain. I think it is helping increase my fight to stay a nonsmoker which was beginning to wan. Wish me luck remembering why my brain is sending these intense cravings that I must ignore or get through.
    From all the quit smoking sites now I should be past so much, but here I am craving and craving.

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