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Nicotine patches help improve memory

Nicotine patches can improve cognitive performance in elderly people with early memory problems, a study claims.

The research, published in the journal Neurology, found volunteers suffering with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) performed better on tests analysing their long-term memory and attention while wearing a nicotine patch.

It is hoped nicotine-based therapy could be used in the future as a way of slowing the progression of MCI to Alzheimer's.

All 67 volunteers were non-smokers and were suffering with memory and thinking problems, not yet severe enough to be diagnosed with dementia.

Half of the volunteers wore a transdermal nicotine patch for the six month trial, while half wore a placebo patch which did not contain nicotine. 

Despite describing the study as "promising", Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer's Research UK, warned people to be cautious when interpreting its findings.

"This small study looks promising as people with MCI treated with nicotine patches showed improvements in several cognitive tests," he said.

"Larger and longer term studies will be needed to get a bigger picture of the potential of nicotine-based treatments in Alzheimer's. As we know, nicotine is highly addictive and smoking can increase our risk of Alzheimer's as well as other serious diseases, and so we must interpret the results sensibly."

Researchers decided to test the impact of nicotine on memory when it was discovered some nerve cells in the brain stimulated by nicotine play a role in preserving cognitive function - the same cells that can have trouble firing in people with Alzheimer's.