Scientists in the US today announced clinical trial results showing that nicotine patches may improve cognitive performance in elderly people with early memory problems. The findings could take scientists a step closer to the development of new treatments to tackle dementia.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, was completed by 67 volunteers. All of the volunteers were non-smokers and had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), thinking and memory problems not yet severe enough to be diagnosed as dementia. Half of the volunteers wore a transdermal nicotine patch for the six month trial, while half wore a placebo patch which did not contain nicotine.
Nicotine, a chemical found in tobacco, is known to stimulate nerve cells in the brain – one reason why cigarettes are so addictive. Some of the nerve cells which are stimulated by nicotine in the brain play a role in preserving cognitive function and these cells can have trouble firing in people with Alzheimer’s. This had led some scientists to believe that nicotine may hold a clue to how to get these cells firing again.
Over the course of the trial, the volunteers took several different types of memory and performance test and the researchers followed their performance. The results showed that, although there was no significant difference in overall improvement between those with nicotine patches and placebo, volunteers with the nicotine patch performed better on specific tests of long term memory and attention.
Although a nicotine-based therapy is unlikely to prevent or cure the disease, the scientists hope it could in future present a way of slowing the progression from MCI to Alzheimer’s and treating some of the symptoms of the disease.
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“This small study looks promising as people with MCI treated with nicotine patches showed improvements in several cognitive tests. Larger and longer term studies will be needed to get a bigger picture of the potential of nicotine-based treatments in Alzheimer’s. As we know, nicotine is highly addictive and smoking can increase our risk of Alzheimer’s as well as other serious diseases, and so we must interpret the results sensibly.
“We hope that the findings can push scientists towards developing safe and effective therapies to tackle dementia, and with 820,000 people in the UK living with dementia, this need has never been greater.”
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