YOUR HEALTH: Nicotine may help early dementia patients

Bad for your lungs but good for your brain? Nicotine be help older adults fighting memory loss

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Everyone knows that smoking cigarettes increases your chances of lung cancer, heart disease, and early death.

But one researcher says that nicotine, the addictive substance found in cigarettes, may actually have some surprising benefits.

And one man says it's helped him.

When Reece Dean started to experience changes in his mood he never thought it would lead to a diagnosis of mild cognitive decline, the early stages of dementia.

"He was very irritable and explosive almost at times," remembered his wife Mary Ann.

Then Mary Ann saw a flyer for the MIND Study, which stands for memory improvement through nicotine dosing.

"What nicotine does is it imitates the action of a normally-occurring chemical in the brain that's important for signaling," explained Dr. Paul Newhouse, th director of the Vanderbilt Center for Cognitive Medicine.

It's called acetylcholine and it's important for learning, memory and attention.

"And nicotine can help imitate the actions of acetylcholine when it's being degraded by Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Newhouse.

Dr. Newhouse treated 74 patients and with the skin patch version of nicotine on a daily basis for six months.

The patch is not a cure but it helps with symptoms making life enjoyable.

He saw improvements in attention and memory.

But with nicotine having a reputation for being bad for your health, can it really be good for your brain?

Reece was worried about that too.

"Well I'm an ex-smoker, so why do I want to put nicotine back in my system because that would make me want to crave a cigarette." 

Dr. Newhouse said that doesn't appear to be a problem.

"The answer seems to be that if you give it through the skin, you don't have any of those kinds of problems." 

Dr. Newhouse has not seen any habit-forming problems in his patients.

 And Mary Ann, who doesn't know whether her husband got the patch or the placebo in an ongoing study, says she got her husband back.

"His personality went back to being how he use to be, so we felt pretty sure that he did not have the placebo."

Dr. Newhouse does not get any funding from the tobacco industry and does not consider the results an endorsement for smoking. 

He is still enrolling patients for his current trial for the MIND Study at Chicago's Northwestern University and the University of Iowa

The trial is restricted to patients with mild cognitive decline and not those with late stage dementia. 

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.