Nicotine reduces distraction under low perceptual load.

PMID 25304866


Several studies provide evidence that nicotine alleviates the detrimental effects of distracting sensory stimuli. It is been suggested that nicotine may either act as a stimulus filter that prevents irrelevant stimuli entering awareness or by enhancing the attentional focus to relevant stimuli via a boost in processing capacity. To differentiate between these two accounts, we administered nicotine to healthy non-smokers and investigated distractor interference in a visual search task with low and high perceptual load to tax processing capacity. Thirty healthy non-smokers received either 7 mg transdermal nicotine or a matched placebo in a double blind within subject design 1 h prior to performing the visual search task with different fixation distractors. Nicotine reduced interference of incongruent distractors, but only under low-load conditions, where distractor effects were large. No effects of nicotine were observed under high-load conditions. Highly distractible subjects showed the largest effects of nicotine. The findings suggest that nicotine acts primarily as a stimulus filter that prevents irrelevant stimuli from entering awareness in situations of high distractor interference.