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    Nicotine Improves Some Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease

    WebMD Health News

    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 Inc.

    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.

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