As a society, we have spent the past few decades waging war against cigarettes. Nicotine has earned a bad reputation as addictive and deadly, when in fact, tobacco is really the culprit for smoking-related diseases and death. Now, new research has surfaced that proves that nicotine is actually safe, when excluded from tobacco. In fact, scientists have discovered some amazing medical benefits and the incredible potential to help patients with cognitive impairments through nicotine therapy.
The discovery began when scientists realized that smokers were less prone to Alzheimer’s Disease. This seemed counterintuitive because smoking causes cardiovascular disease and in turn, cardiovascular disease is closely associated with a higher risk for Alzheimer’s. After further study, researchers found that the key to the reduced Alzheimer’s was actually nicotine.
Scientists tested the theory by using nicotine patches on patients with Alzheimer’s to see if there was any noticeable improvement in cognitive function. It turned out that the patients receiving nicotine had better memory recall and increased focus. A subsequent study tested nicotine on elderly patients without Alzheimer’s that were displaying typical age-related declines in memory. Again, nicotine seemed to boost cognitive function and response. After multiple trials, scientists concluded that nicotine even offers protection from Parkinson’s Disease, a deteriorating condition where brain cells begin to die in a specific area, resulting in uncontrollable tremors and mental impairment.
For years, we have heard the media talk about the evils of nicotine, so how is it possible that it is offering a medical miracle for patients with cognitive diseases? Dr. Paul Newhouse, the director of Vanderbilt University Center for Cognitive Medicine said that the enemy is actually tobacco. Without the tobacco, nicotine actually isn’t very addictive. “People won’t smoke without nicotine in cigarettes, but they won’t take nicotine by itself,” he said. “Nicotine is not reinforcing enough. That’s why FDA agreed nicotine could be sold over the counter. No one wants to take it because it’s not pleasant enough by itself. And it’s hard to get animals to self-administer nicotine the way they will with cocaine.”
After further study, Dr. Newhouse found that nicotine has a chemical property similar to acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter in the brain that declines in Alzheimer’s patients. In the past, physicians prescribed Aricept to boost these chemical levels in the brain, but nicotine seems to offer the same benefit without the side effects of the pharmaceutical drug.
Dr. Newhouse found that nicotine has brain-boosting powers for those with cognitive impairments, but it doesn’t appear to have the same impact on normal healthy individuals. “Nicotine doesn’t appear to enhance normal people,” Newhouse explained, “but in people who show some degree of cognitive impairment, nicotine appears to produce a modest but measurable effect on cognitive function, particularly areas of attention, and, to some extent, memory.”
With the promise of a non-pharmaceutical solution for many patients, Dr. Newhouse and his colleagues are conducting research on nicotine’s impact on other diseases. They are specifically interested to see if nicotine therapy could help chemotherapy patients that often have a “mental fog” after cancer treatments. The researchers also hope to test nicotine therapy on patients with Down Syndrome, which is closely linked with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In the future, nicotine therapy trials may include HIV patients that are showing rapid decline in mental function.
Dr. Newhouse feels that nicotine is a good option because it eliminates side effects and isn’t addictive when used apart from tobacco. “It seems very safe even to nonsmokers,” he said. “In our studies we find it actually reduces blood pressure chronically. And there were no addiction or withdrawal problems, and nobody started smoking cigarettes. The risk of addiction to nicotine alone is virtually nil.”
At this time, the nicotine therapy trials are utilizing patches for dosed delivery, but it would definitely be interesting to see if nicotine consumed through tobacco-free e-cigarettes would have the same impact. Many older smokers are turning to e-cigarettes, so it would be interesting to learn if the continued nicotine use will reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and age-related memory loss.
Do you think nicotine therapy is a good option for patients with cognitive challenges?