Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nicotine improves attention and memory

Nicotine, mostly found in cigarettes, is often seen as addictive and unhealthy. But not all is bad, scientists from Vanderbilt University Medical Center claim. In a somewhat surprising study, they discovered that nicotine is able to improve memory and attention in older people. However, it has nothing to do with cigarettes: participants were given a nicotine patch, applied to the skin.

In their study, the scientists selected participants that were rather old, with an average age of 76. Also, they had a mild cognitive impairment, which affects attention and memory. All of them were non-smokers. They received a nicotine patch daily, though half of them actually got a placebo. Treatment lasted about six months.

All of the patients receiving a nicotin patch were well able to tolerate it: no hazardous effects were detected. Additionally, they showed an increase in cognitive performance, especially in memory, attention and speed of movement. Despite the improvement in tests, the effects were not visible on a scale used by clinicians to assess the level of cognitive damage.

The study by Vanderbilt University Medical Center was preliminary, with a focus on safety. Because tolerability was excellent, a larger study should confirm whether nicotine treatment is beneficial for such patients. It is possible that a different dose or route of administration improves efficacy. It is however not recommended to start applying nicotine patches yourself, perhaps to stop the cognitive decline that starts earlier than we previously thought. According to the scientists, nicotine treatment is only beneficial for patients suffering from cognitive impairment. For those functioning normally, nicotine may actually make it worse.

Nicotine is found in cigarettes, and provides the addictive component. Even though scientists demonstrated the beneficial effects of nicotine, smoking is still not quite advisable. The relatively small benefits of cognitive improvement do not weigh up to the cancer-inducing effects of smoking. And, as said, it does not work for those already functioning normally on a cognitive level. Also, nicotine itself is not quite safe. It is able to increase tumour growth, induce diabetes and kill you in an overdose. 

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