Recent 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 can cost several dollars a day.
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 Paul Newhouse, MD, 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, Dr. 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. Nicotine appears to stimulate these receptors, which revs up the system involved in attention, learning and memory skills.
However, it appears that nicotine isn't a huge help if someone already has a well-functioning ability to pay attention, he said.
Study Details And Results
In the 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, Dr. Newhouse said.
"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% of their long-term memory loss, while the placebo patch group saw a 26% further decline in memory. Also, "people subjectively thought they were doing better,” Dr. 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, Dr. 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, Dr. 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.
The study appeared in the journal Neurology. The researchers received federal funding for the research and the pharmaceutical company Pfizer contributed the nicotine patches.
Jennifer Rusted, PHD, 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, Dr. Rusted said, there's debate about who should qualify as having mild cognitive problems in studies like this one.
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 important, there are many, many other ways of achieving much bigger improvements—exercise, diet, social and cognitive engagement and interaction."