Many smokers say one of the main benefits of their habit is a feeling of alertness and an increased ability to focus after lighting up. But smoking to improve mental proficiency may only be a quick fix. According to a new study led by University researchers, long-term tobacco use in men is associated with a weakened thinking ability and lowered IQ.

The study did not find a causal relationship between smoking and lowered brain function, said Jennifer Glass, an assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the findings. But the correlation – an unexpected finding from a study originally intended to examine the effects of long-term alcoholism on the brain – calls attention to the need for further research on the connection between smoking and brain function, Glass said.

Glass said that in previous studies on alcoholism, cigarette smoking has been frequently overlooked as a factor leading to decreased mental capacity has been frequently overlooked. This is problematic, she said, because people with alcohol problems tend to smoke more than the general public.

“In looking at cognitive function and how it relates to drinking, I wondered how other variables, such as additional drug use, might have an influence,” Glass said. “That is when it was found that smoking had a correlation.”

In addition to validating previous findings that alcoholism affects IQ and thinking ability, the researchers discovered that long-term smoking diminished the neurocognitive function and IQ of men, regardless of whether the men had alcohol problems. This impact was evident in many areas, such as short-term memory, verbal and mathematical reasoning and visual spatial processing.

The findings have provoked mixed reactions from some students, especially those who smoke, such as LSA junior Dave Jones.

Jones, who characterizes himself as a “social smoker” smokes once or twice a week and said although there are issues with the sample and procedure of the study, findings like these further deter him from smoking.

“I’m not worried about becoming a long-term smoker, and maybe there would be more of an impact if I was,” Jones said, “but, if well-supported, (this finding) is another reason to stop.”

Other students disagreed, arguing that since the findings of this study don’t overshadow the other known risks of smoking, there is less of an impact.

“I think that death and other potential effects have a bigger bearing on whether or not I quit,” said one student, an LSA sophomore who preferred to remain anonymous. “Maybe if I weren’t a smoker it would be more motivation, but the (procedures of the study) make me think it wasn’t in-depth enough and that findings aren’t well supported.”

Glass added that this finding is especially interesting because it sampled from functioning alcoholics. In the past, studies have frequently used subjects from alcohol treatment centers, comprised of individuals with severe alcoholism.

The data in Glass’s report is part of an ongoing study focusing on mental and physical health issues within the context of the family. Glass and other researchers focused only on the male subjects of the larger study – 172 men of various ages – to analyze the relationship between smoking and mental performance.

“We focused on men simply because there was more men in that sample who drink heavily – there was more data to analyze,” she said. “To study women, we would have to have a more specialized sample. We would have to go out and look for women with drinking problems.”

In the future, Glass hopes to find whether brain function improves for people who quit smoking, in addition to investigating the association between tobacco use and cognitive function in adolescents and women.

“What we might see is that people start smoking and get temporary benefits, but with negative effects in the long term,” she said. “The most important thing is that smoking is related to cognitive function and that further research is needed.”

“But (this finding) could be one other reason for people to quit smoking if they are smoking now,” Glass added.

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