London: Scientists have found that nicotine patches help improve the memory of elderly people experiencing the earliest symptoms of dementia, a finding they say could lead to effective use of nicotine to treat people with mild cognitive impairment.
However, experts said the results of the small study are not conclusive, merely hinting of a benefit and do not mean people should smoke.
Scientists have known for some time that the brain contains receptors that respond to nicotine and that a number of these are lost in Alzheimer`s.
In the latest study, a team at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville looked at 67 elderly people with "pre-dementia" or mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and
treated them with nicotine patches that deliver the addictive chemical found in cigarettes.
After six months of treatment, the researchers performed on the patients tests designed to assess memory, attention and response times.
It was found that the nicotine-treated group regained 46 per cent of normal performance for age on long-term memory, whereas the placebo group worsened by 26 per cent over the same time period, the BBC reported.
However, the findings were not statistically significant -- a measure investigators need results to meet in order to rule out any chance findings.
Lead author Dr Paul Newhouse said: "This study provides strong justification for further research into the use of nicotine for people with early signs of memory loss.
"We do not know whether benefits persist over long periods of time and provide meaningful improvement."
Dr Derek Hill, at University College London, said the study gave some exciting evidence that mild memory problems might be treatable before they develop into dementia.
But, he added: "Nicotine is just one of the existing or experimental drugs that could prove beneficial for this patient group. It should encourage more investment into research into possible treatments."