Smoking electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes can either stress or damage brain cells called neural stem cells (NSCs) that are critically important to brain function.

Even short-term exposure of e-cigarettes produces a stress response in NSCs, said researchers from University of California, Riverside.

"Although originally introduced as safer, e-cigarettes such as Vuse and JUUL are not harmless," said Atena Zahedi, first author of the research paper published in iScience, an open-access journal.

"Even short-term exposure can stress cells in a manner that may lead, with chronic use, to cell death or disease. Our observations are likely to pertain to any product containing nicotine," noted Zahedi.

E-cigarettes trigger a complex series of cellular-level events that damage stem cells’ DNA, said the study. Damaged stem cell mitochondria accelerate aging and lead to neurodegenerative diseases.

“The neural stem cells get damaged and could eventually die,” according to Zahedi. “If that happens, no more specialized cells -- astrocytes and neurons, for example -- can be produced from stem cells.”

What makes these findings more disturbing is that e-cigarettes are often targeted at youth and pregnant women. Young people and fetuses are especially prone to stem cell damage because their brains are still developing, according to the study.

This means young people and pregnant women might be especially vulnerable to harm from e-cigarettes.

“Their brains are in a critical developmental stage,” said Prue Talbot, a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology who led the research and directs the Riverside campus’ Stem Cell Center.

Talbot said nicotine exposure during prenatal or adolescent development can affect the brain in multiple ways that may impair memory, learning, and cognition. “It’s worth stressing that it is nicotine that is doing damage to neural stem cells and their mitochondria.”

Stem Cells
New study finds stem cell injections may help to improve chronic stroke patients' motor function. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

People should also be concerned with the prevalence and wide availability of nicotine in liquid, inhalable form.

E-cigarette smokers might also think these devices are safer and cleaner than tobacco cigarettes and they'd be wrong in this assumption. Medical evidence is mounting nicotine is harmful whether it’s smoked in a traditional cigarette or vaped in an e-cigarette.

Nicotine exposure during prenatal or adolescent development can affect the brain in many ways that might impair memory, learning and cognition.