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Nicotine studied as possible way to fight memory loss

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Posted at 1:30 PM, Aug 23, 2022

Memory loss is something that comes with old age. At least, that's been the reality for generations of humans.

Researchers today are hoping to change that. Recent studies have focused on electric shocks, breakthrough drugs, and the benefits of diet and exercise.

There is also the "Mind Study:" A collaboration between several institutions which focuses on whether nicotine could help older patients fend off memory loss.

"We've known for some time that there are receptors in the brain for nicotine," said Dr. Paul Newhouse, one of the researchers involved in the study and the director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

"It was only in recent decades that we understood that receptors were important for memory functioning, attention, and other aspects of cognitive functioning," said Dr. Newhouse. "We subsequently learned that the loss of these receptors was occurring in patients with Alzheimer's disease."

Dr. Newhouse said this connection between brain receptors and nicotine led them to their current work.

Volunteers for the Mind Study are given nicotine patches regularly.

The volunteers "are not suffering from severe symptoms that would diagnose them with dementia or Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Newhouse. "These are folks with subtle memory loss that we believe are at high risk for developing Alzheimer's."

The Mind Study researchers monitor the volunteers' brains regularly to see how the nicotine is impacting their memory.

Previous research on nicotine for memory loss has shown "improvements in testing scores, improvements in attention, and improvements in generally how patients were rated by doctors and their loved ones," said Dr. Newhouse.

He noted that one of the major challenges of the research had been the stigma associated with nicotine.

It was long ago tagged as "the addictive chemical in cigarettes," leading to public skepticism when linked to academic research.

"It's the drug we love to hate," Dr. Newhouse said.

He stressed that the nicotine used in this study is not addictive or cancer-causing.

"Nicotine, when it's absorbed through the skin, does not seem to activate any of the centers in the brain that are associated with substance abuse," Dr. Newhouse said. "It only seems to work in a way that might be positive for cognitive performance."

Bernard Liebman, one of the volunteers in this study, said he hasn't missed a Wordle since he began treatment.

He is a daily player.

"I'm not into the science of it," Liebman said, "but what they have determined is that this minimal amount of nicotine does affect the brain in certain ways."

The Mind Study is still enrolling volunteers.

Dr. Newhouse said his goal is to enroll 400 patients by the end of 2023. They have over 75% of their enrollment efforts completed.

"We don't expect that nicotine is going to be the whole answer," said Dr. Newhouse. "But it might be part of the answer. And we should be open to exploring that."