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The good side of nicotine

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.

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,” said his wife, Mary Ann Dean.

One day Mary Ann Dean 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. It’s called acetylcholine,” said Dr. Paul Newhouse, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Acetylcholine is important for learning, memory and attention.

“And nicotine can help imitate the actions of acetylcholine when it’s being degraded by Alzheimer’s disease,” Newhouse said.

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

“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,” Reece Dean said.

“The answer seems to be that if you give it through the skin, you don’t have any of those kinds of problems,” Newhouse said.

Newhouse has not seen any habit-forming problems in his patients. And Mary Ann Dean, who doesn’t know whether her husband got the patch or the placebo in an ongoing study, said she got her husband back.

“His personality went back to being how he used to be, so we felt pretty sure that he did not have the placebo,” she said.

Newhouse does not get any funding from the tobacco industry and does not consider the results an endorsement for smoking. The patch is not a cure, but it helps with symptoms making life enjoyable.

He is still enrolling patients for his current trial for the MIND study. The trial is restricted to patients with mild cognitive decline and not those with late stage dementia.

To learn more information or find a study site near you, click here.