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Study: Nicotine Is Good for You

Illustration for article titled Study: Nicotine Is Good for You

Nicotine patches significantly improved attention and memory in older people suffering from mild cognitive impairment, which often leads to Alzheimer's, according to a new study.

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Before you get excited, smokers, the researchers say the study has nothing to do with cigarettes. They looked at 74 non-smokers with an average age of 76. Half got a nicotine patch of 15 mg per day for six months; the other poor bastards got a placebo. Neither group knew whether they had the real patch.

Dr. Paul Newhouse, director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, reports in the journal Neuroscience that the patches helped patients do better on cognitive tests for "attention memory, speed of processing and consistency of processing." After 6 months of treatment, the nicotine group regained 46 percent of normal longterm memory for their age. The placebo group got 26 percent worse.

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Dr. Newhouse doesn't recommend running out and buying nicotine patches for elderly family members, or yourself for that matter, because precise dosage seems to be important: "If you're already functioning fine, but slip down the hill, nicotine will push you back up toward the top," he says in a press release. "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."

Plus, while nicotine alone is not nearly as bad for you as when it's delivered via cancer stick, it's not entirely safe. Some of the bad things it does on its own include possibly increasing your chance of getting diabetes, it can speed up tumor growth, it can be intensely addictive, and it can kill you if you overdose. There might be more, research is ongoing.

But in addition to potentially treating Alzheimer's symptoms, researchers are looking to nicotine as a potential treatment for Parkinson's. Studies have also found nicotine helps ulcerative colitis patients suffer fewer flare ups. Stanford research found nicotine helps grow new blood vessels, which can be good in people like diabetes patients with poor circulation (but it's bad when the blood vessels are in tumors).

Something many of these studies have in common is acetylcholine, a naturally-occurring compound and neurotransmitter in the brain that helps nerve cells fire. Nicotine is similar to acetylcholine structurally, so it behaves similarly: it stimulates and regulates the firing of neurons and the release of brain chemicals including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine (which also makes it a mood booster for some people). Researchers think nicotine's similarity to acetylcholine has something to do with blood vessel formation as well: endothelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels, carry a receptor that binds to acetylcholine (and probably nicotine too).

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The following is my thinking alone, and not a recommendation in any way to anyone: With the recent news that cognitive decline begins as early as age 45, it's a little bit tempting to stock up on nicotine patches. Or e-cigarettes? Oh, and in the study published today, subjects also lost weight. Hm. Twist my arm? [Neurology]

Image: Shutterstock/lev dolgachov

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DISCUSSION

I read something to this affect recently. It was included in a study of the use of hallucinogenic plants among shamanic cultures (like those in the Amazon). The author touched on the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and everything (it was even written in 1999). Anyway, on to some of the interesting info about the tabbacy:

In certain indigenous cultures, tobacco is considered a remedy (the Ashaninca word for "healer," or "shaman," is sheripiari - literally, "the person who uses tobacco) - while, in America, it has been directly implicated in more than 25 serious illnesses. Meanwhile, most authorities on the matter haven't witnessed or heard of a single case of cancer developing among these shaman. And these fuckers consume massive quantities of it, sometimes swallowing it wholesale. The variety used by these cultures even contains up to 18% nicotine, whereas Virginia-type tobacco contains .5-2% in the United States and Europe.

Now, there are fundamental differences between the shamanic use of tobacco and the consumption of industrial cigarettes. Amazonian tobacco is grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides and contains none of the ingredients added to cigarettes, such as aluminum oxide, potassium nitrate, ammonium phosphate, polyvinyl acetate, and a hundred or so others*, which make up approximately 10 percent of the smokable material. During combustion, a cigarette emits some 4,000 substances, most of which are toxic. Some of these substances are even radioactive, making cigarettes the largest single source of radiation in the daily life of an average smoker. According to one study, the average smoker absorbs the equivalent of the radiation dosages from 250 chest x-rays per year. None of this applies to the organically grown, natural variety used by the shaman.

Oh yeah, and when taken in mass amounts, the shaman claim they are able to "communicate with the spirits" (they are categorical in saying that spirits had an almost insatiable hunger for tobacco). Seem like a funny idea? To us, maybe - but shaman tend to rely on direct experience, not on doctrine.

*other additives include products for ash bleaching and combustion accelerators - like aluminum hydroxide, aluminum sulphate, and aluminum and silicium heteroxides - and gelling and thickening agents - like cellulose, polyvinyl acetate and glyoxal