Will Nicotine Help Slow Memory Loss?

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The University of Vermont will lead the first study ever to examine the efficacy and safety of using nicotine patches to treat Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a state of memory impairment recently identified by the American Academy of Neurology that may be a precursor of Alzheimer’s disease.

Often difficult to diagnose because of the mild nature of memory changes, MCI is characterized by symptoms such as increased forgetfulness, but is not accompanied by the disorientation, confusion and impaired judgment typical of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that if left untreated, 12 percent of MCI patients will convert to Alzheimer’s disease each year.

“Just like heart disease doesn’t start with a heart attack – it starts with years of cholesterol build-up – Mild Cognitive Impairment may represent the early stages of memory loss prior to the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Paul Newhouse, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Clinical Neuroscience Research Unit at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and research director of The Memory Center at Fletcher Allen Health Care.

Funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute on Aging, the multi-center study will be led by Newhouse, who gained international recognition several years ago for his research examining the effects of nicotine on motor and cognitive skills in Parkinson’s disease patients.

The researchers aim to enroll a total of 75 men and women at three study sites over a three-year period. Initially, study participants will undergo a series of assessments similar to the process required for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease, including interviews with family members, physician examinations and computerized testing. For the first six months, participants will receive either a nicotine or placebo patch. Then, for the next six months, all participants will receive a nicotine patch. Participants will be assessed at one week, one month, and then each month thereafter.

Participant recruitment at the University of Vermont, as well as Duke University and Georgetown University, will begin later this fall. For more information about participating in the study, contact Sally Ross Nolan at the University of Vermont/Fletcher Allen Health Care Clinical Neuroscience Research Unit at 802-847-9488.

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