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Drugs & Health Blog

Smoking: How It Primes the Brain for Addiction

This blog post is archived and is no longer being updated. For the latest content, please visit the main Drugs & Health Blog page.
Sara Bellum

More people understand now the harmful effects that smoking has on the body as well as the addictive effects of nicotine. The good news is that teens seem to be getting the message—SBB recently reported that smoking rates among 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders are at an all-time low.

But many teens are still smoking—according to the 2011 Monitoring the Future Study PDF [230 KB], 19 percent of high school seniors reported smoking in the past month.

New NIDA research gives yet another reason for teens to avoid lighting that first cigarette—nicotine may “prime” the brain to enhance cocaine’s effects, making it a very dangerous “gateway drug.” That means it could open the door to other drug use.

Nicotine Changes the Brain

Evidence shows that most people who tried drugs like cocaine were first tobacco or alcohol users. This concept of “gateway drugs” has been controversial, mostly because people question whether prior use of drugs like nicotine, alcohol, or marijuana actually leads to later drug use. Before now, studies have not been able to show a biological reason why smoking or other nicotine use could increase a person’s chances of using illegal street drugs.

That changed when NIDA researchers found that mice exposed to nicotine in their drinking water for at least 7 days showed an increased response to cocaine. 

Why did this happen? Researchers recognized that nicotine actually changes the structure of your DNA. It reprograms how certain genes are expressed—in particular a gene that has been related to addiction—and ultimately, it enhances the response to cocaine.

A Turn for the Worse

Moving on from mice, researchers looked at statistics in humans—in particular at when people began nicotine use and their degree of cocaine dependence: Among cocaine users who smoked cigarettes before starting cocaine, the rate of cocaine dependence was higher compared with those who tried cocaine first (before smoking cigarettes).

The study doesn’t mean that every person who smokes cigarettes will eventually become addicted to cocaine. But it does suggest that if a person who smokes cigarettes tries cocaine, their brains may have been changed by nicotine to make it more likely that they will become addicted to cocaine.

Need help quitting smoking? Take a look at these resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Update: Test your knowledge about why smoking is dangerous—take our quiz here.

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


It (smoking) doesn't induce people to use more dangerous drugs as long as the person has a good self-control. I smoke, but I never use marijuana and as such.

@Manto You are correct, if you never try other drugs, you will not become addicted to them. The research presented here discusses how nicotine changes your DNA structure. Those changes are believed to increase the likelihood that you will become addicted to cocaine IF (and only if) you try cocaine.


Thats a very interesting thing about the dna changing abilities. I never heard of this. Most of our members in the support group have been heavy smokers for years and couldnt stop smoking. And all of them have copd now. We will discuss the dna changing potential in one of our next meetings and i will refer to this page here.

Copd Support Group
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Main-Kinzig-Kreis, Germany

A three-year study of 1,500 Wisconsin residents found that those who quit smoking felt a gain in happiness and less stress in their lives.
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Thanks for sharing. I will quite smoking cigarettes. very helpful
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Some people may say that when you smoke it doesn't change the brain. Actually it does, when yoiu start to smoke you may get sick, then after your first time your body craves more and more of the nicotine. When you crave more of the nicotine your brain is changing because before it didn't need the nicotine to feel good but now you do, your brain slowly changes, and each time you smoke your brain changes more and more. Also, when you smoke you raise your dopamine levels and you need more of the drug. why take a drug to be and feel happy when you can go out and just have fun. Why risk your life for one puff, is it worth it?

This is a very interesting article , I think it will be a definitely a helpful for those who are addicted in smoking and want to leave this this ..
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This is very surprising and, if this could very well be a purposeful side effect. Cigarette and other tobacco companies may be teaming up with other drug companies to make an even larger profit. As crazy as this may seem, we all know that tobacco companies have lied before and they could also be lying by not telling you EVERYTHING that a cigarette does to you. Even though it took scientists to find out these (more than) harmful things that drugs can do with interwoven effects to other drugs, scientists most likely alter tobacco and put things into it so tobacco. This can change your DNA and make cocaine and maybe others more addictive and easier to become addicted to. That is the part I can't quite wrap my head around, however. It seems nearly impossible.

that's pretty interesting about the whole changing DNA thing. now i thin that people know about that, more people will be saved about doing cocaine and drugs and stuff. :)
It's great that scientists are understanding the process of addiction better than they ever did and in ways that can be easily communicated so that non-scientists can fathom the mechanisms of addiction. When younger I was fascinated when I saw my friends and acquaintances become smokers. I couldn't understand why, when some of them wanted to quit, they couldn't, nor could they adequately explain why to me. My curiosity got the best of me so I tried smoking, much to my smoker friends delight. Within a fairly short time, about 3 weeks, I was enjoying it so much that I thought I would quit by the end of the summer, the season in which I started. By Fall my curiosity turned to a true understanding and I found myself in the same situation as my friends, made worse by the fact that my boyfriend at the time also started but had no intention of quitting. I didn't know then, nor did anyone, about the affect nicotine has in changing the brain by taking over its reward system. Once I had a smoker's brain, no knowledge, philosophy, desire to change or anything was strong enough to keep me from being engaged in this irrational habit. In fact, over the subsequent years, I smoked more like so many other smokers. It really is an irrational beast as the rational side of me knows I should stop but the primitive chemistry of my brain no longer allows for me to feel normal unless I dose myself every 30-60 minutes of every waking hour.