10 January 2012

Nicotine patches reduce senior moments

by Will Parker

Older people may benefit from the regular use of nicotine patches, according to a study that showed improvements in memory and brain function in a group of senior non-smokers who were suffering memory and thinking impairments. Published in the journal Neurology, the study examined the effects of nicotine in seniors with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) - the stage between normal aging and dementia.

For the research, Paul Newhouse, director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University and author of the study, recruited 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.

"Nicotine is a fascinating drug with interesting properties," explained Newhouse. "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."

Impressively, the study showed evidence of improvement across multiple cognitive tests for attention memory, speed of processing and consistency of processing. 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.

Side effects included nausea and dizziness, much like what a person would experience when smoking a cigarette for the first time, Newhouse said. Those on the nicotine patch also experienced mild weight loss. There were no withdrawal symptoms reported when the participants stopped using the nicotine patch.

Past studies have found that nicotine stimulates receptors in the brain that are important for thinking and memory and scientists speculate that it may also have neuroprotective effects. But Newhouse said that seniors shouldn't start recklessly slapping patches on. "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. But this study provides strong justification for further research into the use of nicotine for people with early signs of memory loss."

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Source: American Academy of Neurology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center