Nicotine patches as a quit-smoking aid have two advantages. The good news is that nicotine patches have now been shown to combat memory loss in elderly people and those who have stopped smoking.

According to a study published in the current issue of Neurology, published by the American Academy of Neurology, wearing a nicotine patch could help people with mild cognitive or memory impairment.

The new study notes that nicotine patches could improve the brain functioning of such individuals by improving on lost memory. Nicotine, the key addictive ingredient in cigarettes, was seen to render added benefits to those using the patch for longer periods.

Lead Researcher, Paul Newhouse, of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, noted the findings should not be seen as a prescription, for otherwise healthy adults, to start smoking.

What we and others have shown is that nicotine doesn't do much for memory and attention in the normal population, but it does do something for those whose cognitive function is already impaired, he explained.

Newhouse noted his research team noticed a small effect a week into the study. However, during the end of the six-month mark, the effect had grown substantially. He further admitted that nicotine, as a drug, has interesting properties.

The effects of nicotine are dependent on the initial state of a person's cognitive functioning, he said. If you're already functioning fine, but slip down the hill, nicotine will push you back up toward the top. A little bit of the drug makes poor performers better. Too much, and it makes them worse again, so there's a range. The key issue is to find the sweet spot where it helps, Newhouse added.

In a six month double-blind pilot clinical trial, the study on cognitive performance and clinical status was observed in 67 non-smoking patients with amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). The study results demonstrated that nicotine treatment improved cognitive performance along with subject-rated measures of memory symptoms.

Half of patients were given a nicotine patch of 15mg a day for six months. The other half received a placebo. The study was designed so neither the participants nor the investigators knew which group received the nicotine patch.

MCI is a condition triggered by the natural aging process. It leads to dementia, mostly when an individual develops a mild memory or thinking disorder. Many older adults with MCI go on to develop Alzheimer's Disease.

Newhouse stressed that people with memory loss should not begin smoking or use nicotine patches as a means of self-medication, owing to the harmful effects of smoking. As a medication, the patches have to be administered under the guidance of a physician.

The study speculated that nicotine might be neuro-protective because nicotine stimulates receptors in the brain that are important for cognition including thinking and memory. People with Alzheimer's Disease lose some of those receptors.

I don't think it's going to become a treatment for Alzheimer's disease by itself. That would be like trying to rebuild a house after a fire when the fire's still going. You need to prevent the fire. The holy grail would be changing the deterioration curve, Newhouse explained.

The study showed improvement across multiple cognitive tests for attention memory, speed of processing and consistency of processing.

Over the six months of treatment, the nicotine-treated group regained 46 percent of normal performance, relative to age, for long-term memory; the placebo group worsened by 26 percent over the same period. One area that didn't show significant improvement was that of global impression, which means a health care provider did not observe the patient was any better or worse.

Memories need to be encoded, stored, and retrieved, and all of these steps can have problems, said Newhouse, It looks like nicotine helps that process. Patients in the study did not remember more right away, but they forgot less over time.

Newhouse added the study provided strong justification for further research into the use of nicotine for people with early signs of memory loss, which may determine whether benefits persist over long periods of time and provide meaningful improvement.  

Although future studies are needed, there is also the need for more extensive research to determine a significant impact of the study in reviving cognition abilities in memory loss.