Dr. Paul Newhouse, Vanderbilt University – Nicotine and Memory

May 25, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Paul Newhouse of Vanderbilt University explains research that suggests nicotine may have beneficial effects on aging brains.

Paul Newhouse is a professor of psychiatry and the Jim Turner Professor of Cognitive Disorders at Vanderbilt University.  He also directs the Vanderbilt Center for Cognitive Medicine, a laboratory conducting research studies that investigate the biological, neurochemical, and brain circuitry mechanisms that underlie changes in cognitive functioning. Dr. Newhouse attended medical school at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine and completed his residency training in psychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

About Dr. Newhouse

Dr. Paul Newhouse – Nicotine and Memory

It seems as though everyone over the age of 40 is expressing concerns about their memory.  My colleagues and I recently published a paper on a research study we conducted, looking at the effects of nicotine patch treatment in adults who were diagnosed with early memory loss, known as Mild Cognitive Impairment, (often referred to as MCI).  MCI is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.

Neurotransmitters are signaling chemicals that act as messengers of information in the brain.  From previous research, we know that nicotine stimulates a receptor for a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is important for thinking and memory. Nicotine has been tested in people with Alzheimer's disease and produced small benefits- it may be that people with Alzheimer’s disease have already lost too many of these receptors, so nicotine is less effective.  In MCI, however, people still have many of these receptors – so, we believed that nicotine could be more effective.

With this idea in mind, we tested 74 adults diagnosed with MCI.  For 6 months one half were given daily nicotine patches and the other half used placebo patches. We found was that those on the nicotine patch had significant improvement in their attention and memory.  There were no serious side effects and no signs of nicotine withdrawal.

It should be emphasized that the patches only produced improvement in those already experiencing memory loss, it has not been studied as a prevention method. Anyone having concerns about their memory should speak with their medical provider or be evaluated at a memory clinic - there are many reasons for memory problems and the cause must be determined before deciding on appropriate treatment.

We are encouraged by the results of this initial study and feel positive that this will lead to further research towards effective treatment for memory loss.