For most who have visited a loved one in rehab, the phrase “don’t forget to bring cigarettes” is likely one they’re familiar with. Many people recovering from alcohol abuse say that smoking makes abstinence easier, but a recent study suggests that nicotine actually has the opposite effect on alcohol-dependent individuals and interferes with their neurocognitive recovery during the first stages of their alcohol cessation.

Researchers have known for some time that those who have suffered from alcohol dependency often sustain neurocognitive impairment, which lasts even after initial detoxification. These include difficulties with attention and concentration, problem-solving, learning, and memory. However, Dr. Timothy C. Durazzo, corresponding author in the study, emphasized to Medical Daily in an email that there are considerable variations in an individual’s level of disturbance.

In this new study, published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the researchers studied exactly how much various levels of nicotine use affected the neurocognitive rehabilitation in the first eight months of alcohol abstinence. "To our knowledge, there have been no previous studies that used multiple assessment points to investigate the effects of cigarette smoking on cognitive recovery over the first eight months of abstinence from alcohol,” Durazzo said in a press release.

In their study, Durazzo and his team examined 133 alcohol-dependent individuals (ALC) during their first eight months abstaining from alcohol. According to the press release, 30 of the participants had never smoked, 28 were former smokers, and 75 were active smokers. A total of 39 non-smokers were also used as control participants. About 89 percent of all participants were male. All had their auditory-verbal and visuospatial learning and memory, processing speed, and working memory measured during the first week, fourth week, and eighth month of their abstinence.

Results showed that there were wide discrepancies in the participants’ abilities to recover in most cognitive functions. "Over eight months of sustained abstinence from alcohol, active-smoking ALC showed poorer recovery than never-smoking ALC on measures of learning, and both former-smoking ALC and active-smoking ALC recovered less than never-smoking ALC on processing speed measures,” Durazzo explained. By the eight-month marker, those who had never smoked reached full recovery of neurocognitive functions, but those who had once smoked or still smoked continued to be slower with mental tasks.

The reason for this hindered cognitive recovery is not clear, but the researchers believe it may have something to do with the plethora of toxins in cigarette smoke. It is believed that these “free radicals” can directly damage brain cells and cells of organs directly. “The diminished recovery of former-smoking ALC may represent the residual effects of long-term oxidative stress; however, this is all speculative," Durazzo said.

Rather than discourage smokers who are being treated for alcohol dependency, the results will help researchers learn how to better help these individuals. “We believe our findings strongly reinforce the growing clinical movement to offer a comprehensive smoking-cessation program to individuals seeking treatment for alcohol and substance use disorders," Durazzo said.   

Source: Durazzo TC, Pennington DL, Schmidt TP, Meyerhoff DJ.Effects Of Ciggarette Smoking History on Neurocognitive Recovery Over 8 Months of Abstinence in Alcohol-Dependent Individuals. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 2014.