Nicotine patches improve memory, attention and mental processing in older people suffering from memory problems known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), one of the earliest symptoms of dementia.
The findings, published in the scientific journal Neurology, come from a small study of 67 non smokers examined over six months. Half of the study participants, whose average age was 76, were given a daily nicotine skin patch containing 15 milligrams of the drug. The others wore a placebo patch containing no active medication. The study was designed so that neither the participants nor the investigators knew which group had received the nicotine patch.
By the end of six months, the nicotine-treated group had regained 46% of normal long-term memory for their age whereas the placebo group had worsened by 26% over the same time period. The nicotine-treated group’s ability to pay attention, speed of processing and consistency of processing also improved.
The study findings were not statistically significant, which they need to be in order to rule out chance findings. Longer, larger studies are therefore needed to confirm these preliminary findings and fully assess the effects of nicotine on memory and whether it might point the way to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Those in the study group receiving the nicotine patch experienced only minor side effects like nausea and dizziness, similar to the effects a person would experience when smoking a cigarette for the first time. Those with the nicotine patch also experienced mild weight loss, not surprising since nicotine is an appetite suppressant. No withdrawal symptoms were reported when the study participants stopped using the nicotine patch.
Lead researcher on the study, Paul Newhouse, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, said the results of the study should not be viewed as an endorsement of smoking or of nicotine for normal individuals. “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.” However, people with memory loss should not start smoking or using nicotine patches by themselves because smoking has other harmful effects and a medication such as nicotine should only be used with a doctor’s supervision.
There are some 820,000 people in the UK living with dementia and the number is set to continue rising. There are some drugs that can reduce some of the symptoms of dementia but there is no cure. This small study gives hope that mild memory problems might be treatable before they develop into full blown dementia.