A new study found that nicotine may have some therapeutic effects in people with mild cognitive impairment, that phase of mental decline that falls somewhere between normal age-related forgetfulness and debilitating Alzheimer’s disease.
The study, published in the January issue of the journal Neurology, found that older adults with memory and cognition problems who don’t meet the criteria for dementia may get a significant mental boost from using an over-the-counter nicotine patch.
This may prove important since currently, there are no approved treatments for mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
Nicotine stimulates acetylcholine receptors in the brain that are important for thinking and memory. It has previously been tested in people with Alzheimer’s, but not been proven helpful, likely because people with advanced dementia have already lost most of these receptors so nicotine has nothing to lock onto. In MCI, however, people still have many of these receptors, so theoretically, nicotine would be more effective, explains the study’s lead author Dr. Paul Newhouse, irector for the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, Tenn.
In the study, subjects with MCI were randomized into a group that wore a nicotine patch or a control group. After six months of treatment, those who wore the nicotine patches regained 46 percent of normal performance for their age on long-term memory, whereas the control group actually worsened by 26 percent over the same time period. Some improvements in memory were seen as early as three months.
“We also saw consistent improvements in attention, cognitive speed and other measures of cognition,” Newhouse says.
Newhouse is quick to warn that this study is preliminary and people should not run to the drug store to get a nicotine patch. Those who suspect they or a family member may have MCI should get a complete evaluation by their doctor before starting any treatment, even an over-the-counter one.
The amount of nicotine used in the study was similar to what’s contained in the OTC Nicotrol patch for people trying to quit smoking. Cigarettes deliver about one milligram of nicotine, whereas the patch delivers about 15 milligrams over the course of the day. Some subjects experienced a few side minor effects such as nausea and some weight loss, but no one demonstrated any signs of addiction to the nicotine.
The study begs the question: Can nicotine help middle-aged adults who experience age-related forgetfulness? Based on prior research, says Newhouse, “It doesn’t seem to help people who are functioning well. Nicotine works like an amplifier, but if you turn it up too much, you get a lot of noise, and it will confuse you, not make you think more clearly."