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Nicotine Patch May Improve Memory in Pre-Dementia Patients

Small Study Shows Significant Benefits in Memory
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

patch on arm

Jan. 9, 2012 -- People with mild memory loss, often an early warning sign of future dementia, may get help from an unexpected source: nicotine patches.

A new study published in the journal Neurology shows that wearing a nicotine patch improved the brain performance of such adults.

The study, which the authors acknowledge was a small one, involved 45 men and 29 women. The average age of the group was 76, and just over half were former smokers. Each of them showed signs of early memory loss, but their symptoms were not severe enough to qualify for a diagnosis of dementia.

Dementia is an umbrella term for certain brain disorders involving problems with memory and thinking, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The participants were divided into two groups. For six months, one group wore 15-milligram nicotine patches, while the other was given a placebo. Each patient took memory and brain function tests at three separate times: one at the beginning of the study, another halfway through, and a final test at the study’s conclusion.

By the end of the study, the patients who had worn the nicotine patches were better able to pay attention, and they also demonstrated better long-term memory than patients who didn’t use the nicotine patches. 

“The patients improved enough that they noticed the difference,” says researcher Paul Newhouse, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. “Their doctors noticed the improvements, too, but not as much as their patients.”

Nicotine, the addictive ingredient in cigarettes, appears to provide increasing benefits the longer it is taken. Newhouse says he and his team noticed a small effect a week into the study. By the three- and six-month marks, that effect had grown substantially.

“It seems that the effect grows over time,” says Newhouse. “I was quite pleased with that finding.”

Unanswered Questions

Neuroscientist Joshua Grill, PhD, says the study shows good results, but larger and longer studies will be needed to determine whether nicotine will improve more than just memory. Grill, who reviewed the study for WebMD, points out that the study showed no improvement in more extensive functioning -- the ability to perform everyday activities. He is also concerned about safety.

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.

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