The pipe-smoker’s self-image has long rested upon a thoughtful and contemplative nature. That men like J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Albert Einstein, and Samuel Clemens were almost never without their pipes has underscored the pipe man’s persona. And the brilliant, if idiosyncratic, mental gymnastics performed by the mythical Sherlock Holmes has done nothing if not underscore these traits.
Could there be biochemical science behind the myth?
A study published in the American Academy of Neurology’s medical journal, Neurology, suggested that older adults with increasing memory problems may benefit from nicotine therapy.
The study of 74 non-smokers – who on average were 76 years old – showed that those on nicotine therapy performed better on cognitive tests for attention and memory functions than those who were given placebo therapy. Those on therapy regained almost fifty percent of normal performance for their age in long-term memory. Those who were given placebo therapy worsened by 26 percent over the same period.
The National Institute on Aging-funded study showed that “If you’re already functioning fine, but slip down the hill, nicotine will push you back up toward the top. A little bit of the drug makes poor performers better,” said the study’s author, Paul Newhouse who is Director of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Center for Cognitive Medicine. The Center plans to investigate the effects of nicotine therapy on reversing cognitive decline among older adults.
Neuroscientists have long known of the effects of nicotine on memory performance, a link that was established in the 1980s. Receptors in the brain that are vital to cognitive functions are stimulated by nicotine. People who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease lose some of these receptors. The study does not suggest that nicotine therapy can reverse or slow Alzheimers disease, however.
According to the study, there is a “sweet spot” when it comes to therapeutic applications of nicotine. A little bit of the drug makes poor performers better, but too much nicotine worsens performance.
The study’s authors caution older adults against starting cigarette smoking in order to improve their brain functions.
Thanks to Jeff Neisler for the heads-up on the study’s publication.