Is nicotine good for your memory?

We know that smoking is bad for our health, but what about nicotine? A new study looks at the possible positive effect of the nicotine patch on memory and thinking. The study,  published today in Neurology, looked at nicotine (delivered by a patch) in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is the stage between normal aging and dementia when people have mild memory or thinking problems but not severe enough to affect their everyday lives. Previous research has shown that 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 claim

After six months of treatment, study participants treated with the nicotine patch did better on some tests of memory and thinking, but did not do better on a set of scales that measured their doctor’s impression of symptom severity and treatment response. The researchers found no serious side effects for the people receiving the nicotine patch.

The methodology

The study was based on results for 67 participants (average age 76) who had MCI 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.

Beyond the headline

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a small pilot study, and although the results are encouraging, they are very preliminary. The study was short term, so we do not know whether benefits seen in participants persist over long periods of time. Additionally, because the participants who received the treatment did not score better than those who took a placebo on a test known as the clinician’s global impression of change, we do not know whether the tested treatment provides a “real world” improvement beyond better scores on some tests.

I also cannot stress enough that people with mild memory loss should not start smoking or using nicotine patches. There are many harmful effects of smoking, including increasing cancer and heart disease risk. Nicotine also has harmful side effects, and medications with nicotine as an ingredient should only be used with a doctor’s supervision.

The bottom line

The study provides enough evidence to give good reason for further research into the use of nicotine for people with early signs of memory loss. We need to see studies in larger and more diverse populations, and over longer periods of time.

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