Skip to main content
Stay updated

How does nicotine affect brain development?

VicHealth would like to thank Dr Lexi Frydenberg for her help to develop and review this article.

10 May 2024
News 5 min read
Young woman looks out the window pensively

The human brain is still growing and developing until about 25 years of age, forming billions of connections as we learn, practice skills and have new experiences.  

Using nicotine through vapes, cigarettes, nicotine pouches and snus (nicotine pouches + tobacco pouches) during this critical period of brain development can cause problems in the short and long-term. These problems can include issues with attention, concentration, learning, memory, impulse control, emotional regulation and mood.

In this article we’ll cover:

  • How nicotine affects the brain  
  • Why nicotine is worse for people under 25 years old
  • Nicotine and mental health
  • Why prevention matters
  • Resources and support for parents and kids 

How nicotine affects the brain

Click the transcript symbol

Animated icon of a magnifyign glass on a page

above to view a full transcript for this video interview with Dr Lexi Frydenberg.


Most vapes, cigarettes, nicotine pouches and snus (nicotine + tobacco pouches) contain nicotine. When you have nicotine from any of these sources your brain releases the feel-good chemical, dopamine.  

Dopamine is a natural chemical that helps transmit messages in the areas of the brain that create feelings like motivation, pleasure and satisfaction. Dopamine also plays a role in supporting our concentration, learning, memory, mood, movement and sleep.

That ‘reward’ feeling you get after doing something fun or achieving something is partly because the brain releases more dopamine.  

The problem is, this same ‘reward or pleasure’ feeling also happens after using nicotine (and other drugs, like alcohol). So when you have nicotine, your brain releases dopamine and you get a quick “hit” or “buzz”, but it doesn’t last very long. This can make you want more and more, leading to increased use of nicotine products and possible addiction, as well as unstable levels of dopamine which can affect how your body functions.

Once you stop using nicotine, you will also have withdrawals with symptoms such as cravings, irritability, difficulty concentrating and poor sleep. The good part – quitting nicotine can significantly improve mental health by reducing anxiety and depression symptoms. Additionally, quitting can increase cognitive functions and sleep quality, leading to better overall mental health. 

Why nicotine is worse for people under 25 years old

Click the transcript symbol

Animated icon of a magnifyign glass on a page

above to view a full transcript for this video interview with Dr Lexi Frydenberg.


In your childhood, teen and young adult years, the brain forms billions of new connections (synapses) between brain cells (neurons) when you learn things, practice skills and have new experiences.  

There are times in life when your brain is developing rapidly and is more vulnerable to any changes. These times include during pregnancy, the baby and toddler years, adolescence and up to age 25.

Nicotine exposure during these critical times of brain development can lead to changes; in both the structure and function of different parts of the brain.  

Nicotine exposure also leads to changes in levels of the neurotransmitters, the brain's chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin and so can rewire your brain so it becomes more addicted to nicotine and the release of dopamine that comes with it.

This can affect things like memory and concentration, and impact the parts of your brain that make decisions and assess risk. Nicotine use can also alter your mood and interfere with how effectively your brain makes new neural connections.

Nicotine in the teenage years can harm the parts of the brain that control:

  • Learning and memory
  • Impulse control and emotional regulation  
  • Attention and behaviour
  • Mood  
  • Executive function (things like organisation and planning, working memory and flexible thinking) 

Nicotine and mental health

Click the transcript symbol

Animated icon of a magnifyign glass on a page

above to view a full transcript for this video interview with Dr Lexi Frydenberg.


Nicotine can have a negative impact on mental health in many different ways.  

In particular, it makes symptoms of depression and anxiety worse.

Any positive feelings you have after a “hit” of nicotine, might be short-lived and soon outweighed by low mood, irritability and difficulties with focus, learning and memory that can occur as nicotine levels drop.

Some of the ways nicotine can impact mental health include:

  • Addiction: nicotine is highly addictive, which can lead to dependence. This can contribute to anxiety and stress if you can’t get access to nicotine products or when you are trying to quit.  
  • Mood disorders: nicotine can affect levels of dopamine and serotonin, which are involved in regulating our mood. This might cause low mood, irritability and worsen depression.  
  • Anxiety: nicotine can lead to increased anxiety, especially during nicotine withdrawal periods.  
  • Cognitive effects: nicotine can impact our ability to think, including creating problems with attention, learning and memory.
  • Interaction with medications: nicotine can interact with medications used to treat mental health disorders, potentially reducing their effectiveness, or causing adverse effects.  

Why prevention matters

We only have one brain.  

Young people’s developing brains are particularly vulnerable to the effects of nicotine and use during childhood, adolescence and under the age of 25, can significantly interfere with how effectively the brain builds its networks and functions.  

Understanding nicotine’s effects and preventing its use is vital to ensure young people have the healthiest future possible.  

Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
VicHealth acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land. We pay our respects to all Elders past, present and future.
This website may contain images, names and voices of deceased people.

VicHealth acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government.

Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.