Using a nicotine patch may help improve mild memory loss in older adults, according to a study published in the journal Neurology.

Previous studies have shown smokers could improve cognitive function by quitting smoking and other studies have found attention and memory improvement in people with Alzheimer’s disease. In this study, researchers at the American Academy of Neurology looked at nicotine in people with mild cognitive impairment – the stage between normal aging and dementia when people have mild memory or thinking problems but no significant disability.

TheCheckup spoke to the studies lead author Dr. Paul Newhouse about his findings.

When and how often it happens among the elderly?

There are normal cognitive changes that occur with aging. These include decrease in psychomotor speed, a decrease in the capacity of some types of memory but also an increase in things such as vocabulary complexity. These are so-called “normal changes.”

However the study did not address those, but rather studied individuals who are experiencing noticeable memory loss, so-called “mild cognitive impairment” (MCI) which is considered a precursor condition to Alzheimer’s disease. This is beyond normal age-related changes in cognitive functioning, but is considered a precursor to a significant dementing illness. Please see the Alzheimer’s Association website or other sources for detailed statistics on the incidence and prevalence of dementing illnesses.

What made researchers initially want to study the relationship between nicotine patches and improved memory?

Loss of nicotinic receptors in the brain was shown as early as the mid-1980s by Dr. Ken Kellar, one of the co-authors on this paper. At the same time, I proposed the use of nicotine to stimulate nicotinic receptors in Alzheimer’s disease patients and we published the first paper on this in 1988.

Over the last 20 years, we have worked assiduously to establish the role of nicotinic receptor function in normal human thinking, learning, and memory. We proposed to the National Institute on Aging around 2005 that mild cognitive impairment was an ideal condition to test the potential efficacy of nicotinic stimulation with nicotine as these patients would have better preserved nicotinic receptors in their brains.

Can you please elaborate a bit on how nicotine stimulates receptors in the brain?

Nicotinic receptors sit on the ends of nerve fibers that ascend from lower areas in the brain to higher areas all over the cortex of the brain. These receptors are ion channels and when nicotine stimulates them in lieu of the naturally occurring transmitter, acetylcholine, the channels briefly open and allow ions to flow into nerve cells. This produces activation. This appears to act as an “amplifier” to increase signal traffic through the brain. This seems important in areas of the brain responsible for attention, learning, and memory.

Are there ways people can reduce the chance of memory loss before it happens?

Maintaining good general health, normal blood pressure, good cardiovascular health, exercise, and a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet, have all been shown to be associated with better late life cognitive health. For further information, I refer you to the NIH consensus conference report that was published last year on the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

What else do you hope to learn in future studies concerning nicotine and memory loss?

We continue to be interested in the mechanisms by which nicotine stimulates cognitive function in aging and hope to understand the process better. More specifically, we plan to propose to the NIA a larger clinical trial to extend the results from this study to larger populations over a longer timeframe to more fully assess the long-term impact of nicotinic treatment.


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