MONDAY, Jan. 9 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that
the nicotine patches used by people trying to quit smoking could
serve an unexpected purpose: They appear to counteract mild memory
loss in older patients.
The research is preliminary and only involved a few dozen
subjects. There's also the matter of expense: While they're
available over the counter, patches may cost several dollars a
Still, "nicotine treatment may be a way to improve people's
symptoms and maybe extend their ability to do all of those
cognitive things we need to do," said study author Dr. Paul
Newhouse, director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "We're hoping to pursue
this with a much larger group."
This isn't the first time researchers have tried to analyze
connections between the brain and nicotine. In the 1980s, Newhouse
and others discovered through autopsies that the brains of patients
with Alzheimer's disease lacked certain "receptors" that help the
brain's chemicals work properly, he said. While their job in the
brain isn't to deal to nicotine, these receptors do respond to
The experiences of smokers seem to confirm the connection
between nicotine and brain function, Newhouse said. "If people
smoke a cigarette, they will tell you they can pay attention
However, it appears that nicotine isn't a huge help if someone
already has a well-functioning ability to pay attention, he
In the new study, researchers recruited 74 nonsmoking seniors
with mild cognitive problems and watched what happened to 34 who
received treatment with nicotine patches (15 milligrams a day) and
33 who got placebo patches for six months. Another seven didn't
finish the study.
The people in the study weren't in bad enough shape to be
diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. However, they did have moments
of memory loss that the people around them noticed, Newhouse
"They might repeat themselves, tell the same thing several times over or not remember something they've been told," he explained, "or make a mistake in calculations for their checkbook."
Their losses in cognitive function were beyond those of normal
aging, he added.
After testing cognition and memory at the start of the study and
again at three and six months, the researchers found that those who
used the real patches did better in terms of attention and memory,
although the differences weren't huge and their doctors didn't
notice them. The nicotine patch group regained 46 percent of their
long-term memory loss, while the placebo patch group saw a 26
percent further decline in memory loss. Also, "people subjectively
thought they were doing better," Newhouse said.
The only consistent side effect was weight loss, he said, and
it's not clear if that stabilizes over time.
The participants who got the real patches didn't suffer
withdrawal symptoms when they went off them, Newhouse said.
"There's no worries about becoming dependent on it or wanting to
take nicotine even though you shouldn't take it."
The patches seem to boost memory by affecting the brain's
chemicals and allowing a person to pay attention more easily, he
said. "Attention is necessary for memory to work."
However, Newhouse said he can't recommend the nicotine treatment
for memory loss at this time. "If you want to think about it,
discuss it with your physician," he said.
Jennifer Rusted, a professor of experimental psychology at
Sussex University in England, said the study was well done but it
doesn't address the effectiveness of using nicotine patches in the
long term. Also, Rusted said, there's debate about who should
qualify as having mild cognitive problems in studies like this
As for the idea of taking nicotine patches to keep sharp
mentally, she said that "realistically, the benefits even in this
careful test were so small as to be indiscernible in the general
scheme of daily activities. More importantly, there are many, many
other ways of achieving much bigger improvements -- exercise, diet,
social and cognitive engagement and interaction."
The study appears in the Jan. 12 issue of the journal
Neurology. The researchers received federal funding for the research and the pharmaceutical company Pfizer contributed the nicotine patches.
For more about
cognitive impairment, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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