Slapping on a nicotine patch may not just be for smokers trying to kick the habit.
In an intriguing test, researchers tried nicotine patches as a memory booster for nonsmokers with mild declines in their thinking ability, a precursor to dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
"There were improvements in attention and memory performance in patients who took the nicotine patch compared to those with the placebo patch," lead researcher Dr. Paul Newhouse, a Vanderbilt University psychiatrist, tells Shots. "The placebo patients stayed the same or got worse."
Though the study was modest in size, involving about 70 people over six months, lead researcher Newhouse says it's the largest trial ever performed looking at how nicotine might improve memory.
Previous research has linked nicotine to improved alertness, coordination and cognitive functioning. The latest work, published in Neurology, suggests it may help improve attention, memory and mental processing in people with mild memory loss.
So how does nicotine affect memory? The chemical actually mimics the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which stimulates nerve cell receptors in the brain. Stimulating these receptors revs up the system involved in attention, learning and memory skills.
This helps explain why when smokers quit and cut their nicotine intake to zero, they may have a harder time remembering things, Newhouse says. Eventually, their brains rebound and memory returns to normal, he says.
But that's not the case for someone with Alzheimer's. "If a patient has Alzheimer's disease, the receptors are already damaged," Newhouse says. That's why he studied people on the brink of losing the function of receptors — to see if he could alter the course of memory loss.
"It's like a heart attack," he says. "We don't wait till you get one to treat you. We use a biomarker, like cholesterol or blood pressure, so we can act with an early intervention."
Not every part of the study came out peachy, though. Based on qualitative judgments by doctors blinded to the test, nicotine didn't show a significant change in the patients' "global functioning," or their ability to handle life's everyday problems, despite nicotine improving their memory a tad.
With that in mind, Newhouse says the next step is to return to the National Institute on Aging, which supported the study, and put together a larger and longer trial. "We want to see if we can improve performance but also symptom difficulties with memory and change the trajectory on how people decline in Alzheimer's."
Patients suffered no serious side effects and had no trouble discontinuing the treatment, the researchers report. Pfizer provided the patches.
Now, if you're thinking about picking up some patches to improve your memory without a doctor's advice: Think twice. "Nicotine doesn't help normal performance," Newhouse says. "It only does if you are tired, anxious, upset – impaired in some way." And don't start smoking either. Smoking is a terrible delivery system for any drug because of its detrimental side effects, he says.