Nicotine as Medicine: Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer's Disease. What Science is Saying

Science Mar 8, 2021
Photo by Natasha Connell on Unsplash

Disclaimer: At Nicotine Freak we are not doctors or medical researchers. Through our work, we support consumer choice, public health and safer forms of nicotine consumption. The purpose of this piece is to raise awareness, in laymen's terms, of some of the fascinating findings and ongoing research into the medicinal properties of nicotine as a treatment for Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer's disease.

A Personal Story

Alzheimer's disease led to the death of my grandfather. He was a hardworking man all his life even to the very end, even after retirement - he spent 35 years building cars so was always fixing things, making tools, collecting the olives and was very active. Until dementia came along.

Mistaking me for my father or uncles (or a total stranger), aggressive outbursts, general confusion, leaving the house for a walk and getting lost, general suspicion and frustration towards everything and everyone around him, not knowing where he was and bursting into tears for no apparent reason were just some of the disturbing symptoms I witnessed. These symptoms gradually became worse over several years.

It was particularly difficult for my grandmother who had to take on the brunt of these symptoms, as his wife of over 55 years. He died in 2015 at the age of 83.

Summer 2012: I am sat next to my grandfather on his 80th birthday. I took him to a Greek Orthodox monastery to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. His vacant and confused stare reflects the underlying dementia, by this point likely transitioning from MCI to Alzheimer's disease .This was the last photo I ever took with him..

Those of you reading this who know of someone who suffered or is currently suffering from this awful degenerative disease will likely relate and feel quite emotional when recalling similar experiences.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, approximately 50 million people are living with dementia worldwide. By 2030, this is set to increase to 76 million. We have a huge problem on our hands here that is getting worse.

Despite the unavoidably morbid tone of this article so far, there is some good news to report. Over the past 10-15 years, great scientific strides have been made into understanding Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a precursor to Alzheimer's.

The science now points to a very cheap, natural and unexpected treatment.

It is nicotine.

I often wonder, knowing what I do now, how things may have turned out differently for my grandfather if we'd given him nicotine when his first symptoms of MCI became apparent.

At the age of 62, my father who is also a trained chemist has chosen to start using nicotine pouches as a safe way to take in small doses of nicotine to reduce his chances of suffering in the way his father did.

The Chemical Structure of Nicotine

How Does Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) relate to Alzheimer's disease?

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is a condition that negatively affects memory, attention span and concentration, although those affected by it may still live relatively normal lives, aside from a noticeable loss of memory and cognitive function. MCI, however, is recognised by the broader medical community as a precursor to Alzheimer's disease. In the photo, I suspect my grandfather may have been somewhere between the two, for example.

What is the Good News?

Nicotine Freak is bringing to your attention the work being done by The Memory Improvement by Nicotine Dosing Study, or in acronym form, the MIND Study. It is led by Dr Paul Newhouse MD, Director for Cognitive Medicine at the Vanderbilt Medical Centre.

The study is the largest of its kind, focusing on nicotine's action on cognitive function and receives a large part of its funding from the United States government's National Institute of Health (NIH). The research is also conducted in partnership with the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, Vanderbilt University and the University of Southern California.

None of the funding comes from tobacco companies.

The Memory Improvement by Nicotine Dosing Study ('MIND Study') States:

Many people mistakenly believe memory loss is a normal part of aging, but that’s a myth. Nearly one in seven adults over the age of 65 are living with mild memory loss or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which puts them at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
MCI is a cognitive state that is between normal aging and early Alzheimer’s disease. MCI typically affects memory, language, thinking, and judgment in ways that are serious enough to be noticed by the person experiencing them and by family members and friends who see them every day.
If you or someone you love is forgetting names, appointments, or social engagements more often, or becoming increasingly overwhelmed when making decisions, following instructions, or planning a project, it may be time to be evaluated for MCI.

It has been known for some time that smokers are less susceptible to developing Alzheimer's disease – this has long perplexed scientists because smoking unquestionably leads to cardiovascular disease, which in turn strongly increases the risk of an Alzheimer's diagnosis.

Isn't Nicotine Dangerous?

Many medicines in use today are derived from chemical compounds found naturally in plants, the medicinal properties of which have been recorded by humans for thousands of years.

Hippocrates (Ἱπποκράτης), the 'Father of Medicine' born 460 BC who died around the age of 90 an exceptionally long life for the time

The "Father of Medicine", Hippocrates, was well known for documenting the medical qualities of the various herbs and plants found on his highly biodiverse place of birth, the Greek island of Kos (Κῶς), where he also established the Hippocratic School of Medicine, two and a half thousand years ago. To the present day, all newly qualified doctors take the Hippocratic Oath in recognition of his contribution to medical science and ethics.

Asklipieion; this is the place where Medicine was founded as Science. Once a place of worship, Hippocrates used the location to establish a school and teach others about Medicine.

Nicotine as a standalone chemical is found naturally in many species of plants, including potatoes, eggplant, green peppers, tomatoes as well as tobacco. It is a natural insecticide, produced in plant roots as a means of protecting themselves from parasitic organisms, mould and disease.

Yes, the humble tomato contains nicotine

Nicotine stimulates chemical systems within the human brain, much like compounds found in other plants, for example, cannabis, which acts on the brain's Cannabinoid Receptors.

Cannabis for years was demonised as a dangerous and illegal substance, now, however, it is accepted as having immense medicinal utility among the scientific community worldwide and has been legalised for medical use in scores of countries which is increasing every year.

Legal status of medical cannabis worldwide

Nicotinic Receptors

Your brain is also full of what are known as Nicotinic Receptors. Nicotine essentially imitates the naturally occurring chemicals found within the brain which stimulate attention and memory. As a potential treatment for MCI and Alzheimer's, this is a truly ground-breaking and exciting scientific avenue to explore.

But Nicotine is Still Bad for you Right?

Ask someone on the street what they think about nicotine and you will likely receive answers along the following lines:

"It's poison"
"It's an evil drug"
"It's addictive and dangerous"
"Cigarette companies use it to keep people smoking”
“It causes cancer”

These are very widely held views when it comes to nicotine among the public. The problem for nicotine is its reputation is tarnished since it is contained within combustible cigarettes.

One must accept, however, that combustible tobacco smoke and nicotine are not the same things. Nicotine is simply a natural chemical found within many species of plants.

The MIND Study's View on Nicotine as a Substance

I couldn't write it more succinctly myself, so I've taken it directly from the MIND website:

"Nicotine does not cause cancer. Fifty years of public health messaging has been instrumental in helping people understand that smoking is detrimental to your health and may cause cancer, however nicotine is not to blame. It is the tar and thousands of other chemicals found in cigarettes that make smokers susceptible to cancer, heart disease, and respiratory issues. A small amount of nicotine absorbed through a patch on the skin is not the same as inhaling tar and other chemicals through the lungs while smoking."

Dr Paul Newhouse MD's team at Vanderbilt University developed a nicotine patch after discovering that nicotine stimulates a receptor for acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, which aids in thinking and memory.

The National Institute on Aging initially invested in research during the mid-2000s. 74 patients were studied in three different university medical centres where they were treated for up to a year.

In a 6-month double-blind study, there were significant benefits identified linking nicotine to attention and memory improvements. Patients themselves and their loved ones reported subjects as being better off than at the beginning of the study compared to those individuals who were given a placebo. There were no recorded signs of serious side effects or withdrawal upon cessation.

Dr Paul Newhouse speaking with patient Wes Suddarth

The National Institute of Aging has since funded further research on subjects for up to two years to explore nicotine as a treatment for MCI in the form of nicotine patches or a patch placebo. Thereafter patients were subject to brain imaging and other forms of medical analysis to test whether nicotine can improve or alleviate symptoms of memory loss in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and possibly delay or prevent its progression to Alzheimer's disease.

https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/health/study-researches-whether-nicotine-patch-can-help-people-with-memory-loss/2219162/

The US Food and Drug Association (FDA) has fortunately long approved of this research and as a result, nicotine has been found to present us with an inexpensive, accessible and reliable treatment for memory loss (MCI), the precursor to Alzheimer's disease.

We do not necessarily need to cure the disease itself; even a slowdown in the rate of decline represents an incredible medical breakthrough that can benefit millions of people and their families all over the world. And all because of a substance as cheap, natural and readily available as nicotine.

We need to seriously rethink and reframe how we view nicotine in society and separate it from smoking - lives depend on it. Nicotine and smoking are not the same things.

Quotes From Other Health Organisations on Nicotine

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)

“Nicotine inhaled from smoking tobacco is highly addictive. But it is primarily the toxins and carcinogens in tobacco smoke – not the nicotine – that cause illness and death” https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ph45.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)

“Almost all of the harm from smoking comes from the inhalation of tobacco smoke rather than nicotine. There are some risks to health but overall they are relatively minor. Nicotine increases heart rate and blood pressure and can also increase gastric acid secretion leading to peptic ulcers”. http://ash.org.uk/files/documents/ASH_114.pdf

Public Health England

“Nicotine in the form of tobacco and more recently NRT has been available to thousands of millions of people and large numbers of them, including small children, have ingested considerable doses of nicotine. Fatal nicotine poisoning, however, is extremely rare. This fact strongly contradicts the often-repeated claim that an ingestion of 30-60mg of nicotine is fatal. The source of this claim proved difficult to locate – textbooks just cite older textbooks. Eventually, the assertion was found to be based on dubious self-experiments conducted in the 1890s”

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/457102/Ecigarettes_an_evidence_update_A_report_commissioned_by_Public_Health_England_FINAL.pdf

Royal Society for Public Health

“RSPH is calling for public confusion over nicotine to be addressed as a way of encouraging smokers to use safer forms of the substance. Tobacco contains nicotine along with many other chemicals, but nicotine by itself is fairly harmless.  Nicotine is harmful in cigarettes largely because it is combined with other damaging chemicals such as tar and arsenic, and as a highly addictive substance getting hooked on nicotine is one of the prime reasons why people become dependent on cigarettes.  Electronic cigarettes and Nicotine Replacement Therapy (gum, lozenges, and patches) contain nicotine but don’t contain the harmful substances found in cigarettes.”

https://www.rsph.org.uk/en/about-us/latest-news/press-releases/press-release1.cfm/pid/32B2FF71-A11A-42F6-A0C8EF19BA0E0C4F

UK National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training (NCSCT)

Is nicotine dangerous?

Nicotine does not cause smoking related disease, such as cancers and heart disease. These are caused by other chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Nicotine is addictive however and it is why people continue to smoke despite knowing about the harmful effects of tobacco. Nicotine in e-cigarettes poses little danger to adult users. In order to prevent accidental poisoning of children, e-cigarettes and liquids should be stored away safely (just as you would with household cleaning products and medicines, including NRT products).
http://www.ncsct.co.uk/usr/pub/Electronic%20cigarettes.%20A%20briefing%20for%20stop%20smoking%20services.pdf

Other Potential Medical Uses of Nicotine

Not only can nicotine be beneficial for smoking cessation and as a treatment for MCI/Alzheimer's, but research is also being carried out into its efficacy as a serious treatment for a myriad of other conditions including:

· Mental illness

· Depression

· ADHD

· Parkinson’s disease

· Sarcoma

There are very clear scientific reasons as to why mental health patients, such as sufferers of Schizophrenia, love smoking cigarettes for therapeutic effect. It calms the "chattering" in their minds by acting on nicotinic receptors which are directly linked to attention and concentration - it is of course to do with nicotine.

Wouldn't it be better if these ill people didn't consume nicotine via smoking? Perhaps we can look into this another time.

In Summary

It is time to reconsider nicotine and educate the public on the difference between nicotine and smoking and the benefits that nicotine can have on public health when consumed in a non-combustible manner.


Check out any of the links in this article to find out more for yourselves about this fascinating topic.

Best wishes from Nicotine Freak. It is a pleasure to have brought this to your attention.

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Timotheos (Tim) Hatzis

China Expert and Business Consultant

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