Significant advances in human functional brain imaging offer new opportunities for direct observation of the effects of nicotine, novel nicotinic agonists and nicotinic antagonists on human cognitive and behavioral performance. Careful research over the last decade has enabled investigators to explore the role of nicotinic systems on the functional neuroanatomy and neural circuitry of cognitive tasks in domains such as selective attention, working memory, episodic memory, cognitive control, and emotional processing. In addition, recent progress in understanding functional connectivity between brain regions utilized during cognitive and emotional processes offers new opportunities for examining drug effects on network-related activity. This review will critically summarize available nicotinic functional brain imaging studies focusing on the specific cognitive domains of attention, memory, behavioral control, and emotional processing. Generally speaking, nicotine appears to increase task-related activity in non-smokers and deprived smokers, but not active smokers. By contrast, nicotine or nicotinic stimulation decreases the activity of structures associated with the default mode network. These particular patterns of activation and/or deactivation may be useful for early drug development and may be an efficient and cost-effective method of screening potential nicotinic agents. Further studies will have to be done to clarify whether such activity changes correlate with cognitive or affective outcomes that are clinically relevant. The use of functional brain imaging will be a key tool for probing pathologic changes related to brain illness and for nicotinic drug development.
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