Nicotine patches significantly improved attention and memory in older people suffering from mild cognitive impairment, which often leads to Alzheimer's, according to a new study.
Before you get excited, smokers, the researchers say the study has nothing to do with cigarettes. They looked at 74 non-smokers with an average age of 76. Half got a nicotine patch of 15mg per day for six months; the other poor bastards got a placebo. Neither group knew whether they had the real patch.
Dr Paul Newhouse, Director of the Centre for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre, reports in the journal Neuroscience that the patches helped patients do better on cognitive tests for "attention memory, speed of processing and consistency of processing". After six months of treatment, the nicotine group regained 46 per cent of normal long-term memory for their age. The placebo group got 26 per cent worse.
Dr Newhouse doesn't recommend running out and buying nicotine patches for elderly family members, or yourself for that matter, because precise dosage seems to be important: "If you're already functioning fine, but slip down the hill, nicotine will push you back up toward the top," he says in a press release. "A little bit of the drug makes poor performers better. Too much, and it makes them worse again, so there's a range. The key issue is to find the sweet spot where it helps."
Plus, while nicotine alone is not nearly as bad for you as when it's delivered via cancer stick, it's not entirely safe. Some of the bad things it does on its own include possibly increasing your chance of getting diabetes, it can speed up tumour growth, it can be intensely addictive, and it can kill you if you overdose. There might be more, research is ongoing.
But in addition to potentially treating Alzheimer's symptoms, researchers are looking to nicotine as a potential treatment for Parkinson's. Studies have also found nicotine helps ulcerative colitis patients suffer fewer flare ups. Stanford research found nicotine helps grow new blood vessels, which can be good in people like diabetes patients with poor circulation (but it's bad when the blood vessels are in tumours).
Something many of these studies have in common is acetylcholine, a naturally occurring compound and neurotransmitter in the brain that helps nerve cells fire. Nicotine is similar to acetylcholine structurally, so it behaves similarly: it stimulates and regulates the firing of neurons and the release of brain chemicals including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine (which also makes it a mood booster for some people). Researchers think nicotine's similarity to acetylcholine has something to do with blood vessel formation as well: endothelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels, carry a receptor that binds to acetylcholine (and probably nicotine too).
The following is my thinking alone, and not a recommendation in any way to anyone: With the recent news that cognitive decline begins as early as age 45, it's a little bit tempting to stock up on nicotine patches. Or e-cigarettes? Oh, and in the study published today, subjects also lost weight. Hm. Twist my arm? [Neurology]