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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Nicotine Patch May Improve Memory in Pre-Dementia Patients

Small Study Shows Significant Benefits in Memory

Unanswered Questions continued...

Nicotine therapy was associated with a small reduction in blood pressure and weight loss of about 5 pounds at the end of the study period. In elderly adults, this is not always a healthy thing.

“It’s much safer than treating people with cigarettes, that’s obvious,” says Grill, director of the Katherine and Benjamin Kagan Alzheimer's Disease Treatment Development Program at UCLA. “But there is potential for addiction, and reductions in blood pressure are worth discussing, especially in older patients.”

Newhouse says there is a lot of interest in the development of nicotine-based drugs. Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, donated the patches used for the study, which was funded in part by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

How the Patch Works

The patch used in this study is different from patches commonly available in the U.S., says Newhouse.

“They don’t dump nicotine [into the bloodstream] as quickly as American patches. Instead, they release it more slowly. For our study, they worked particularly well,” he says.

Newhouse says that nicotine appears to help the brain consolidate memory. By that he means the process of taking in information and permanently storing it in the brain for future recall.

“Memories need to be encoded, stored, and retrieved, and all of these steps can have problems,” says Newhouse. “It looks like nicotine helps that process. Patients in the study did not remember more right away, but they forgot less over time.”

More Research Needed

While the results of the study are promising, Newhouse says it will take a much larger study, one that includes hundreds of patients, to draw real conclusions about nicotine’s potential to restore memory loss and to protect against disease. He is optimistic.

“There’s strong interest now, and we understand the biology much better,” Newhouse says.

Both Newhouse and Grill say researchers in the field are pushing hard to identify the onset of dementia at earlier and earlier stages, in hopes of finding ways to halt its progress and prevent the devastation of the disease. Doing so, however, will require new methods of studying how patients react to treatments.

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