Cigarette Smoking Actually Shrinks Your Brain
You must have had a brain fart the first day you decided to light up. Now, new research shows that continuing to smoke can shrivel your brain—it can actually cause key tissues in there to thin, according to a study in Molecular Psychiatry.
In the study, the researchers found that cigarette smokers had slimmer cortexes—the outer portion of the brain that’s crucial for cognition—than those who avoided the problematic pastime. What’s more, for each year the participants puffed away, the amount of thinning in that region of their brains increased.
The cortex is king for thinky things like mental computations. It’s also involved in important functions like attention, and spatial reasoning, says study author Sherif Karama, Ph.D, of McGill University. (Make yourself even smarter with these 6 Ways to Boost Your IQ.)
So having a thinner cortex doesn't bode well for your brain—it makes for diminished cognition. In fact, people with Alzheimer’s disease also suffer from thinning of the cortex, along with other cognitive issues.
“If the cortex is broken, the brain is broken,” says Karama.
But that’s not to say it can’t sometimes repair itself, he adds. In the study, the cortexes of former smokers increased in thickness each year they stayed off the smokes. They displayed normal thickness after an average of 25 years smoke-free.
It’s not clear if the nicotine or other chemicals found in the cigs are direct catalysts of brain thinning. It might have to do with the lung damage caused by smoking—it impedes our ability to take in oxygen, and that lack of the vital element likely damages the cortex, he says.
The advice is simple: Stub out the cancer sticks once and for all, and it’s likely that you’ll experience some bounce-back in your cortex. Need some help? Find out How to Quit Smoking for Good.
Unfortunately, there’s not a simple brain-fattening fix for nonsmokers who just want a little boost. But following a balanced diet, staying cognitively stimulated, and keeping physically active may help benefit your cerebral health in general, Karama says.