Patients with mild cognitive impairment may benefit from using a nicotine patch, researchers from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville reported in the journal Neurology. The authors explained that a trial demonstrated some benefits when nicotine patches were administered to older adults with mild memory loss.

Previous studies have shown that people who have given up smoking have better cognitive performance when they use nicotine patches. Other short-term investigations also found that memory and attention in patients with Alzheimer’s disease improved when they were given nicotine patches.

In this study, Paul Newhouse, MD. and team set out to determine whether patients with mild cognitive impairment might derive benefit from using nicotine patches. Mild cognitive impairment is a cognitive stage between what is expected in normal aging and dementia, when individuals have some slight memory and thinking difficulties, but not enough to cause significant disability.

They assessed 74 patients with mild cognitive impairment; their average age was 76 years. They were all lifetime non-smokers. They were randomly selected into two groups:

  • The nicotine patch group – they received a 15 mg patch each day for six months
  • The placebo group – they also received a patch each day for six months, but it had nothing in it, called a placebo

They underwent memory and thinking skills tests at the beginning of the study, in the middle, and then again at the end of the six months.

The researchers reported that after six months:

  • Those in the nicotine patch group recovered 46% of normal performance for their age on long-term memory
  • Those in the placebo group worsened by 26%

Dr. Newhouse said:

“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. 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.”

The researchers say no serious side effects were reported in the nicotine patch group.

Receptors in the brain which are crucial for thinking and memory skills are stimulated by nicotine, the authors explained. During Alzheimer’s disease, some of the receptors are lost.

Written by Christian Nordqvist