Nicotine patch treatment reverses mild cognitive decline in older adults

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Nicotine patch boosts memory in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.

Nicotine patches might someday be useful for treating mild cognitive impairment, suggests a new study. Adults with mild memory problems that were treated with the patches for six months regained 46 percent improvement in cognition in a study that compared transdermal nicotine treatment to placebo.

But the study authors say it’s too soon to suggest nicotine patches should be randomly used for older adults who are becoming forgetful because of the potential for harmful side effects. They also found the patches don’t do anything to improve memory for people without cognitive impairment.

Paul Newhouse, M.D., professor of Psychiatry and director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who authored the study said, "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 he says the finding supports taking a closer look at using nicotine for people with early signs of memory loss to see if the improvements seen in the current study persist.

For the study, researchers studied 74 older adults whose average age was 76. All of the participants had mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Half of the patients received a placebo and the other half was given a 15mg nicotine patch a day for six months.

The researchers performed a variety of cognitive tests including speed and consistency of processing and attention memory. After six-months the group treated with nicotine regained 46 percent of long-term memory function; the group given placebo worsened by 26 percent.


Newhouse said nicotine has “interesting properties” that 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."

Nicotine is shown to give aging memory a boost, but Newhouse says larger, longer duration studies are needed before the drug is recommended. Nicotine has also been shown to improve memory among ex-smokers and was found in past studies to help mice with Alzheimer's disease.

He notes that nicotine isn’t likely to become a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, because nicotine stimulates brain receptors that are lost in patients with the disease, but if it could have benefits for treating mild cognitive decline.

The group given the nicotine patch not only had improvements in memory, but they also lost weight – a finding that the researchers say isn’t a surprise given the appetite suppressant effect of nicotine. The authors stress that nicotine patches should only be used with physician supervision.

American Academy of Neurology
"Clinical Trial: Nicotine Patch Shows Benefits in Mild Cognitive Impairment"
January 9, 2012

Image credit: Wikimedia commons


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