Jan. 9, 2012 at 4:05 PM ET
Nicotine may help tune up the brains of seniors suffering from mild memory loss, a new study shows.
Researchers found that seniors suffering from mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, could boost their memories with a nicotine patch, according to the study published in Neurology.
The patches also led to improvements in attention and mental processing. But these effects weren’t as strong as the impact on memory, said study co-author Dr. Paul Newhouse, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt Medical Center. “The take-home message for this is that nicotine may be helpful in those with early signs of memory loss,” Newhouse said.
MCI is considered to be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, bringing similar, though less severe, symptoms such as mild memory loss, slowed thinking and attention problems. Currently, there are no medications approved to treat those symptoms.
Experts suspect that in MCI, just as in Alzheimer’s disease, there is deterioration and death of nerve cells in the brain that make a critical chemical messenger called acetylcholine. As levels of the neurotransmitter drop, memory and other mental functions decline.
Nicotine has just the right shape to mimic acetylcholine and fit snugly into some of the same receptors that the neurotransmitter does.
Newhouse and his colleagues followed 67 seniors with MCI for six months. Half the study volunteers wore a nicotine patch, while the others wore a placebo patch. The seniors, who were aged 55 and older, were tested for declines in memory and other mental skills at the beginning of the study. They were retested at three months and again at six months into the study.
At the end of the study, volunteers who had worn a patch saw improvements in memory of 46 percent. Those who were treated with placebos declined by about 26 percent over the same period of time.
The nicotine may simply be improving symptoms and not helping with the actual disease, Newhouse said. But there has been some research suggesting that nicotine might actually offer some protection to the cells being damaged by Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Frank Leone was surprised to see that the low doses of nicotine in patches were enough to tune up people’s brains. “I think it’s pretty cool,” said Leone, an associate professor of medicine and director of the comprehensive smoking treatment program at the University of Pennsylvania.
It does make sense that nicotine might help, Leone said. "Nicotine is a mild stimulant and presumably any stimulant has the ability to activate a person’s brain and to potentially improve cognition."
The Vanderbilit research is limited and needs to be replicated in larger studies before doctors should start prescribing patches to alleviate MCI, Leone said. Fortunately, smoking cessation programs have shown that patches can be used safely for years.
While patches haven’t been shown to be addictive, epidemiologist Steven Stellman has some words of caution for healthy adults who might try to use the patch to tune up their brains, rather than just kicking cigarettes.
"Nicotine is the addicting ingredient in cigarettes,” said Stellman, professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. “People become addicted because nicotine gives them pleasure. "
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