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Nicotine patch may boost memory in elderly who are mildly impaired

January 09, 2012|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • A nicotine patch was shown to improve memory in older people with mild memory loss. The study is published in the Jan. 10 issue of the journal Neurology.
A nicotine patch was shown to improve memory in older people with mild memory… (Los Angeles Times )

Older people with mild cognitive impairment may get some help from a nicotine patch, a study suggests.

Researchers tested nicotine patches and a placebo on memory and other brain functions in 74 people (average age 76)  in a double-blind study. None of the participants, who had minor memory loss, was a current smoker, although some had smoked previously. The patches were worn for six months and tests on memory and thinking skills were administered at the start of the study, and three and six months later.

The nicotine group showed improvements in memory, mental processing and attention, compared to those in the placebo group. The nicotine patch group recovered 46% of what would be considered normal performance for their age group on long-term memory, while the placebo group went down 26%.

Other studies have shown a link between nicotine and improvements in memory, attention and learning. It's believed that nicotine helps trigger receptors for neurotransmitters involved in memory and other brain functions. In people with Alzheimer's disease some of those neurotransmitters may be lost.

What researchers still don't know is how effective nicotine might be in the long term, and what affect this could ultimately have on Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

Lead author Dr. Paul Newhouse of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville warned in a news release that this doesn't mean people should use a nicotine patch without a doctor's supervision or start smoking. "But this study provides strong justification for further research into the use of nicotine for people with early signs of memory loss," he added. "We do not know whether benefits persist over long periods of time and provide meaningful improvement."

Those who used the nicotine patches showed no serious side effects.

The study is published in the Jan. 10 issue of the journal Neurology.

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