Can nicotine help patients suffering from memory loss?

Published: Aug. 22, 2019 at 10:42 PM CDT
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(KFVS) - Having trouble remembering things?

Perhaps you’re concerned about developing dementia, or Alzheimer’s as you age.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States with 5.8 million Americans currently living with the disease.

For years researchers have been working to find a cure and some are even working to develop a vaccine.

While a cure is the ultimate hope, some are researching ways to delay the start of the disease.

“We have to take multiple approaches to this very complex illness because we are not going to find a silver bullet,” said Dr. Paul Newhouse.

Doctor Paul Newhouse is the Director of the Vanderbilt Center for Cognitive Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

He also is leading a study for those experiencing mild cognitive impairment.

“We’re hoping to recruit up to 300 patients nationwide to participate in this longtime study,” said Dr. Newhouse.

Dr. Newhouse is the National Project Director for the MIND (Memory Improvement with Nicotine Dosing) study.

“We’ve known for 30 plus years that there are specific proteins in the brain that interact with nicotine.” said Dr. Newhouse.

Nicotine patches are used in the study (Source: KFVS)
Nicotine patches are used in the study (Source: KFVS)(KFVS)

He’s been studying the possibility for most of his career.

“We believe through research I have done and others have done that these are important for memory and intention,” said Dr. Newhouse. “So, we’ve found that nicotine stimulates those receptors in the brain.”

He said those receptors are lost in Alzheimer’s disease.

“Pharmaceutical companies have spent the last 25 years looking for drugs that would interact with those receptors, but not do the same things as nicotine,” said Dr. Newhouse.

Hence the reason for the nationwide MIND study.

Dr. Newhouse said people with mild cognitive impairment (or MCI) experience a state of memory loss that is between normal aging and early Alzheimer’s disease.

Those individuals may have problems with memory, language, thinking and judgement that are greater than normal age-related change.

The MIND study started with about 15 sites around the country and now is up to about 38 locations.

“Oddly a naturally occurring substance that we associate with bad outcomes like smoking, actually if we use it in a different way may turn out to be helpful for us,” said Dr. Newhouse.

Patients in this study wear a nicotine patch, much like what smokers would wear to try and kick the habit.

They extract the nicotine separate from tobacco, so there is no tobacco in this study.

While it’s similar to what smokers would use for smoking cessation, the patches in the study work differently.

“We use it as a medication and we gradually bring people’s dosage up over the course of about five weeks then we maintain them on that dose for about two years to look for the impact on their attention, their memory function and even their brain’s structure,” said Dr. Newhouse.

A similar study was conducted about five years ago to study the benefits of nicotine over a six month period.

This new study is looking at the participants results over a two year period.

That two year mark will be up this fall.

“I am cautiously optimistic, there’s been a lot of failures in this field,” said Dr. Newhouse. “There have been a lot of medications that have shown great promise that turned out to be helpful, but I think this approach is a kind of back to the future idea.”

Newhouse said they plan to continue to the study well beyond this fall.

As people are living longer these days, we are becoming more vulnerable to the risks.

With Alzheimer’s disease being more complex than researchers realized, Dr. Newhouse said they need to think of it like cancer something with multiple causes and multiple solutions.

“I can tell you I’ve worked on this for most of my career and I’m excited that we get to test this in a big way,” said Dr. Newhouse.

It’s encouraging news to Wes Suddarth, who is currently taking part in another research project at Vanderbilt.

“My maternal grandmother had Alzheimer’s for years, and I noticed my mother experiencing that before she passed away,” said Wes Suddarth. “I’d do anything to prevent that.”

Suddarth worked as a dentist for 39 years. He retired two years ago and hopes to be able to enjoy his golden years to the fullest.

“My wife and I want to travel,” said Suddarth.

He has started to notice some cognitive changes.

“I’ve always been hard or bad to remember names, and I’ve noticed over the years that’s gotten a little worse,” said Suddarth.

Suddarth is encouraged by any research that is underway right now that could push back a devastating diagnosis.

He is hopeful that one day soon there will be a breakthrough in this field.

“I may not be around to see it, but they will get there and that’s very encouraging,” said Suddarth.

People want to be able to function better for longer.

Alzheimer’s may be unavoidable, but the hope with this study is to find out if nicotine can buy patients a little more time.

“This will not be the only solution to MCI and Alzheimer’s disease, but it could be part of the solution and it could make a difference even it pushes the disease off even just a few years,” said Dr. Newhouse.

For those who may be interested in participating in the MIND study, you can visit or call (866) MIND-150.

Participants must be healthy non-smoking adults, ages 55 and older who have noticed changes in their memory, or whose family members have noticed changes.

Dr. Newhouse said there’s no evidence that the nicotine in the patches would become addictive.

“It turns out that nicotine by itself is actually pretty un-addictive,” said Dr. Newhouse. “In the first study there were no withdrawl symptoms or cravings when people quit using them.”

He also does not recommend someone suffering from memory loss to go out and buy nicotine patches and use them on their own.

The patches in the study are manufactured specifically for the study.

Using nicotine in this way is still in the investigation stage. They have permission from the FDA to study it, but it is not accepted yet as a form of treatment.

Dr. Newhouse hopes that one day soon though, this could be a weapon to treat one of the biggest medical mysteries.

“Because if this works, if this helps this is an inexpensive, readily available treatment that is potentially over-the-counter,” said Dr. Newhouse. “This is not a drug that’s going to cost $100,000 year, this is not a treatment that’s going to take 10 years to get to market. If it works it could be immediately available to people.”

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