British researchers have found that giving nicotine to lab rats boosts their concentration and memory, and say that the findings could point the way towards pharmaceuticals that could treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia. This benefit may be linked to the effect nicotine has on addicted smokers: The “boost” in concentration that smokers experience from cigarettes could help sufferers fight the mental decline associated with dementia, studies suggest [Telegraph].
Researchers are definitely not suggesting that elderly people take up smoking or start wearing nicotine patches in an attempt to ward off dementia, as the negative health effects would far outweigh any benefits. Lead researcher Professor Ian Stolerman said: “Nicotine, like many other drugs, has multiple effects, some of which are harmful, whereas others may be beneficial. It may be possible for medicinal chemists to devise compounds that provide some of the beneficial effects of nicotine while cutting out the toxic effects” [BBC News].
In the study, which will be presented today at a neuroscience conference in Geneva, researchers found that rats injected with nicotine were more likely to complete tasks correctly than a control group while researchers tried to distract them with flashing lights and sounds.
Efforts are already underway to translate these results into human terms. Drugs based upon the chemical structure of nicotine are already in phase 2 trials to see whether they can forestall the mental decline of Alzheimer’s patients [The Times]. But researchers caution that there’s no evidence that nicotine decreases the risk of getting dementia, only that it may help treat the symptoms and give patients a few extra months of lucidity.