Nicotine Improves Some Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease
Feb. 21, 2000 (Washington) -- It's the drug that hooks cigarette smokers,
sending many of them to an early grave. But it may actually help patients with
Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, Tourette's syndrome, and several other
neurological disorders. The drug is nicotine, and it and other related
compounds have shown promise in several recent clinical trials, according to
results presented here Monday at the annual meeting of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science.
The use of nicotine as a drug is nothing new, says Paul Sanberg, PhD, DSc, a
professor of neuroscience at the University of South Florida. People in South
America were using tobacco in the time of Columbus, and early explorers
imported the plant to Europe. "I doubt there is a much older drug,"
says Sanberg, who is also chief scientific officer at Layton BioScience
Over the years, there have been hints of possible beneficial effects of
nicotine, says another researcher, Paul Newhouse, a professor of psychiatry at
the University of Vermont College of Medicine.
As early as the 1920s, researchers were testing it to treat Parkinson's
disease, a debilitating neurological disorder that affects about 1% of the
population, causing rigidity, slow movement, tremors, and in many cases,
dementia. And over the years, 34 studies of large populations have found that
smokers are less likely than nonsmokers to contract Parkinson's disease,
Newhouse tells WebMD.
But those early results were not followed up until recent years. To see if
nicotine really eased the symptoms of Parkinson's, Newhouse and his colleagues
conducted a small study on 11 men and four women with Parkinson's disease. The
patients, who averaged 66 years of age, did not suffer from dementia.
The study participants wore a nicotine patch on their skin for 16 hours a
day. After two weeks, researchers tested the patients' ability to rise out of a
chair, cross a room, and come back and sit down, Newhouse tells WebMD.
Overall, the nicotine treatment made it easier for the men and women to
move, he says. It also improved performance on several tests that gauge
attention and memory. And many of the effects persisted two weeks after the
treatment was finished, he says. But not all the effects were beneficial.
"It actually seems to make tremors worse," he says.
Newhouse says that no one knows whether the drug will be beneficial when it
is taken for years. That means that it is too soon to recommend a nicotine
patch or gum to Parkinson's patients. "It would be rash to suggest that
people go out and buy the patch," he says. The study is slated to be
published later this year.
Nicotine's effects on memory suggest that it, or related compounds, also may
help treat Alzheimer's patients. In three preliminary studies testing this
possibility, nicotine, or a nicotine look-alike drug called ABT-418, improved
the performance of Alzheimer's patients on tests of memory and attention.