Using a nicotine patch may help improve mild memory loss in older adults, according to a study published in the January 10, 2012, print issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Nicotine has been shown to improve cognitive performance in smokers who have stopped smoking and previous short-term studies with nicotine have shown attention and memory improvement in people with Alzheimer's disease. This study looked at nicotine in people with mild cognitive impairment, which is the stage between normal aging and dementia when people have mild memory or thinking problems but no significant disability.
The study involved 74 people with an average age of 76 who had mild cognitive impairment and were not smokers. Half of the participants received a nicotine patch of 15 mg per day for six months and half received a placebo. The participants took several tests of memory and thinking skills at the start of the study and again after three and six months.
After six months of treatment, the nicotine-treated group regained 46 percent of normal performance for age on long-term memory, whereas the placebo group worsened by 26 percent over the same time period.
"People with mild memory loss should not start smoking or using nicotine patches by themselves, because there are harmful effects of smoking and a medication such as nicotine should only be used with a doctor's supervision," said study author Paul Newhouse, MD, of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. "But this study provides strong justification for further research into the use of nicotine for people with early signs of memory loss. We do not know whether benefits persist over long periods of time and provide meaningful improvement."
There were no serious side effects for the people receiving the nicotine patch.
Nicotine stimulates receptors in the brain that are important for thinking and memory skills. People with Alzheimer's disease lose some of these receptors.
The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Pfizer Inc. provided the transdermal nicotine patches.
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