The effects of nicotine are dependent on the initial state of a person's cognitive functioning. (Photo: Representational/Pixabay)
Washington: It turns out nicotine patches can do more than just control your nicotine cravings. According to a recent study, nicotine can help improve memory loss in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.
The study looked at individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), the stage between normal aging and dementia when others notice that an individual is developing mild memory or thinking problems. Many older adults with MCI go on to develop Alzheimer's disease.
The study looked at 74 non-smokers with MCI and an average age of 76. Half of the patients were given a nicotine patch of 15 mg a day for six months and half received a placebo. The study was designed so neither the participants nor the investigators knew which group received the nicotine patch.
"What we and others have shown is that nicotine doesn't do much for memory and attention in the normal population, but it does do something for those whose cognitive function is already impaired," said Paul Newhouse, lead author of the study published in the Journal of Neurology.
"People with memory loss should not start smoking or using nicotine patches by themselves because there are harmful effects of smoking and a medication such as nicotine should only be used with a doctor's supervision," Newhouse explained.
According to Newhouse, nicotine is a fascinating drug with interesting properties. The effects of nicotine are dependent on the initial state of a person's cognitive functioning. "If you're already functioning fine, but slip down the hill, nicotine will push you back up toward the top. 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." Newhouse asserted.
The study showed evidence of improvement across multiple cognitive tests for attention memory, speed of processing and consistency of processing. For example, after 6 months of treatment, the nicotine-treated group regained 46 percent of normal performance for age on long-term memory, whereas the placebo group worsened by 26 percent over the same time period.
One area that didn't show significant improvement was that of global impression, which means a health care provider didn't observe the patient was any better or any worse. Newhouse said that future study is needed. "We need to do a much longer and larger study, to see if we can make a significant impact on the process of change."
Nicotine stimulates receptors in the brain that are important for thinking and memory and may have neuro-protective effects. People with Alzheimer's disease lose some of those receptors.