Could Nicotine Keep Us Sharp In Old Age? Vanderbilt Launches National Study | Nashville Public Radio

Could Nicotine Keep Us Sharp In Old Age? Vanderbilt Launches National Study

Nov 2, 2017

A Vanderbilt researcher is looking to an unlikely drug in the ongoing fight to stop Alzheimer’s disease in its initial stages.

Paul Newhouse is launching a national study on the impact of nicotine on people over the age of 55 with signs of early memory loss.

"Nicotine stimulates certain chemical systems in the brain, much as other plant chemicals do. So we think that nicotine essentially imitates the naturally-occurring chemical that stimulates attention and memory."

Newhouse, whose own father is suffering from memory loss, says initial research from more than a decade ago produced promising results.

The therapy, if successful, would involve a nicotine patch, not cigarettes or chewing tobacco. The new study will last up to two years and involve nearly 30 research centers across the country.

The study is seeking 300 healthy adults who are non-smokers. They have to have been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment or show early signs of memory loss. An estimated 8 million Americans have MCI.

"There are so many people affected now that this could be such a simple solution it would be a miracle," says Mary Ann Dean of Bellevue, whose husband volunteered to be part of the clinical study.

Reece Dean is a 69-year-old retired truck driver who noticed in the last few years he'd forget his grandkids' names or get where he was going and forget why he went.

Reece actually smoked cigarettes for much of his life.

"My daughter is convinced he's going to be hooked again," Dean says of her husband.

Reece says he — himself — was "a little leery" about using a nicotine patch every day as a former smoker. But he says he's noticed slight improvements already, though he doesn't know whether he might be part of the control group receiving placebo patches.

"Part of it is selfish, because we'd like to see his disease stop progressing," Mary Ann Dean says, adding that she'd like to help growing numbers dealing with dementia. "There are so many people affected now that this could be such a simple solution — it would be a miracle."