Nicotine, that fog inducing much maligned chemical, is able to lift the metaphorical fog in elderly patients who have a habit of forgetting.
Nicotine the nootropic
The term is a relatively new one, which describes chemicals that help us to remember more, focus and think faster. Nootropics have a dedicated band of followers, who like the athlete seeking to shave off a second or two from their time to secure a gold medal, are striving to boost their cognitive performance using a little neurotechnology. The prize for the corporate executive, salesman or student using nootropics is enhanced brain performance, allowing them to out think the competition and so rise to the top.
Of course, nicotine seldom makes it onto the official list of nootropics, because of the huge downside. But researchers from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville have just confirmed what every smoker has always known – nicotine makes you smarter.
Patching up the forgetful
The research team “patched up” 74 old soldiers who were struggling to remember things and think clearly. None of them had actually been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but they were all progressing towards it, having received a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment.
None of the people enrolled in the study were smokers. Everyone was “patched up” i.e. they applied a very specialized giant plaster which is able to deliver drugs. In this case, the drug was nicotine. Half of the participants received a nicotine laced patch, which ended up delivering 15 mg of nicotine per day, the other half received a patch that delivered nothing i.e. it was the placebo.
Clearing the fog
Each participant completed a batch of tests designed to assess how well they were thinking and remembering things at the beginning of the study and then again at the end, 6 months later.
The nicotine patched people showed improvements, but those people not getting a nicotine fix got significantly worse.
Nicotine not such a bad guy
I’m not advocating that we should all take up smoking here, but looking at it from a pharmacological perspective, nicotine is not such a bad guy.
Nicotine is boosting levels of a very important neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine runs the normal day to day things in the body, as the chief cook and bottle washer in the parasympathetic nervous system. But it is also a big player inside the brain, where it is involved in memory.
Memory problems are often linked to shortages of acetylcholine.
So adding nicotine to your body chemistry milleau, causes more acetylcholine, which can be very helpful if you’re running a bit low.
Which is exactly what this study has shown.
Smokey and the bandit
Much of the downside to nicotine is actually not nicotine’s fault at all. Nicotine is typically delivered along with 1000 plus “other” chemicals, through the vehicle of a cigarette.
The “other” chemicals are the real “nasties”.
- they coat the lungs with a sooty layer, promoting inflammation and cell death,
- choke the poor little cilia, which are trying to keep the lungs clean and
- damage the DNA, which can turn cells cancerous
Nicotine innocent victim ?
Okay not completely innocent. One of the problems with nicotine is it causes the muscles surrounding the blood vessels to constrict, so the blood vessels become a little smaller (vasoconstriction).
When the pipes are a little smaller, this causes pressure to build, so nicotine can increase blood pressure.
When there is lots of pressure in the pipes this creates a great deal of stress and strain. Weak points become vulnerable and can burst.
A stroke is an example of a pipe burst.
The other big negative, is nicotine is addictive i.e. once you start you often cannot stop.
Time for a brain lift ?
If you feel you’re in a brain fog of sorts, is nicotine the answer ?
Taking up smoking is not smart. The risks will far out way the benefits.
What about patching up ? Well it really depends. The dose of nicotine is significantly lower than what would get in a cigarette. Dose is everything when it comes to drug effects, both good and bad, so the lower dose means the risks are a lot lower overall.
If you have a history of hypertension – the risk probably still out ways the benefit.
If your blood pressure is low or normal – it might be worth a try.
NB. Nicotine patches can be used without medical supervision i.e. you can buy it without a script from your doctor. Never-the-less it is probably a good idea to run it past your doctor before you “patch yourself up”.Clinical Trial: Nicotine Patch Shows Benefits in Mild Cognitive Impairment – press release from American Academy of Neurology.
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