New research in people suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) reveals that a highly addictive chemical in cigarettes might point the way to a treatment that can reverse memory loss. I’m talking about nicotine. Here’s the surprising story…
Cigarette smoking is the most common preventable cause of death in the United States, causing nearly one in five deaths every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).1
There’s still debate as to whether or not nicotine is carcinogenic on its own – some scientists believe nicotine causes DNA changes that lead to cancer, while others do not, but the experts do agree that nicotine is highly addictive.
They also agree that smoking exposes you to other chemicals in cigarettes and oral tobacco products that do cause cancer such as polycyclic hydrocarbons and tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines (TSNA).2And since addictive nicotine is part of the package, you’re likely to take in much higher amounts of these known carcinogens.
Which is why I was a bit surprised to discover that, for people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), nicotine can often restore some mental capacity that has started to slip.3
Now to be sure I wasn’t totally surprised, because nicotine is a stimulant. I’ve known any number of writers who smoke to get their brains going. So, the new finding may in part just be confirmation of this insight. Smoking also helps keep your weight down, because like most stimulants, it depresses the appetite.
Nicotine Improves Long-Term Memory
“What we and others have shown is that nicotine doesn’t do much for memory and attention in the normal population,” says Dr. Paul Newhouse. “But we believe it does do something for those whose cognitive function is already impaired.”
Dr. Newhouse led a team of researchers at Vanderbilt University in a study using nicotine patches in people with mild cognitive impairment. The researchers found that for someone with MCI, a nicotine patch can boost long-term memory and improve mental focus. But for all that, nicotine patches did not help with short-term memory, nor did they improve what’s called “global functioning” – the ability to cope with life’s day-to-day problems.
Dr. Newhouse emphasizes that nicotine, used as a treatment, is better and less problematic than many of the drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies. As he explains, “People think of (nicotine) as a potentially noxious substance, but it’s a plant derived medication just like a lot of other medications.”
However, for severe memory problems like Alzheimer’s disease nicotine doesn’t appear to be a panacea. Otherwise, folks everywhere with memory loss would, by now, be slapping on nicotine patches.
Plus, people who smoke would be at lower risk of Alzheimer’s – and they’re not. They’re at greater risk of the disease because of all of those dangerous toxins in tobacco smoke.
While nicotine all by itself doesn’t look like it can be a treatment for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, research into what nicotine does in the brain to help with MCI may point to another treatment.
Safely Harnessing Nicotine’s Memory-Restoring Secret
Nicotine is a natural chemical from the tobacco plant, a plant used as a medicine and a stimulant for at least 2,000 years.4The tobacco plant produces nicotine to discourage insects from eating its leaves. In fact, tobacco was first used as an insecticide in 1763.5
Researchers believe nicotine is highly addictive because it grabs on to receptors in the brain. However, this ability also might hold the key to unlocking a new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists in France, at the Institut Pasteur, say that a section of a nicotinic receptor in the brain – located on the membranes of brain cells – may be involved in the destructive processes that lead to Alzheimer’s.
These receptors — located in the hippocampus, a brain area important for memory — also act as receptors for acetylcholine – a neurotransmitter important to memory. According to the French scientists, these molecular docking stations serve as “pores” for communication among brain cells where neurotransmitters take part in forming memories. They also influence the control of muscle movements, sleep, perception of pain and sensations of anxiety.6
Other research suggests that nicotine’s positive effects on memory and concentration might be due to an increase in acetylcholine as well as the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Norepinephrine also increases the sensation of wakefulness.7
In their latest study, the French researchers say their observations indicate that finding a way to alter these receptors may offer an avenue for preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps even one day, a treatment.
Nicotine Can Support Overall Brain Health
Nicotine may offer other brain benefits including:
Lowering the risk of Parkinson’s disease: Many studies show that while smoking tobacco is linked to a long list of illnesses including cancer and heart disease, the nicotine in tobacco smoke does lower the risk of Parkinson’s disease.8 And research at the University of Washington at Seattle indicates that eating vegetables of the Solanaceae family (which includes tomatoes and peppers), which contain low amounts of nicotine, may also reduce your chances of Parkinson’s.9
Reducing symptoms of schizophrenia: Lab tests in Europe demonstrate that in people suffering from schizophrenia, nicotine may have effects in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, helping to reduce lethargy and improve cognition, decision-making and working memory.10
Hopefully, these and other studies on nicotine will reveal new ways to improve the chances of preventing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as well as offer new, more effective treatments for memory loss.
In addition, scientists are also examining exactly why nicotine is so addictive for smokers, with the hope that the answers will lead to a way to help smokers quit the habit.
I’ll keep an eye on their research and let you know about their progress in future articles.