Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s: New Help from an Old Drug

As everyone knows, tobacco smoke is responsible for innumerable diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and COPD and other chronic respiratory diseases. Smoking of tobacco is the largest cause of preventable death in the world, and in the US alone, 440,000 people die because of smoking each year. Despite the dangers associated with smoking, surprising new research shows that the drug nicotine (one of the dozens of substances found in tobacco) may actually have some health benefits, including preventing and treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia.

As people live longer and the world population grows older, disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease will affect more and more individuals. Both of these diseases are neurodegenerative and progressive, meaning the symptoms get progressively worse. Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, but symptoms are treated with various medications and procedures (such as deep brain stimulation to help Parkinson’s).

Extensive clinical trials on the effectiveness of nicotine to improve mental processes and potentially to forestall both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s is underway, and several studies have already shown the effectiveness of nicotine in treating both of these diseases.

A recent study investigated the effects of dietary nicotine found in peppers on Parkinson’s patients. The study, conducted by The University of Washington found that although vegetable consumption in general did not affect Parkinson’s disease risk, as consumption of edible Solanaceae found in peppers increased, Parkinson’s disease risk decreased. Researchers noted that the apparent protection from Parkinson’s occurred mainly in men and women with little or no prior use of tobacco, which contains much more nicotine than the foods studied.

Another study is currently being conducted by The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) to measure the effect of a nicotine patch on Parkinson’s patients.  To conduct this study, 160 Parkinson’s patients were provided with either a nicotine patch or a placebo patch, in order to determine if the real patches might have the potential to slow the progression of PD. The drug used in the trial is the same exact drug from Novartis that people have used to try to quit smoking for many years. So far, pre-clinical studies have shown that nicotine could protect dopamine-producing neurons in the brain from dying, therefore lessening the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

The same nicotine patch can also improve memory in older adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is considered an intermediate between normal aging and dementia. People with MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

trial, led by researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Cognitive Medicine and published in the journal Neurology, involved 67 non-smokers with MCI. The researchers supplied half of the test group with a nicotine patch and half with a placebo patch. After six months, patients who wore the nicotine patch regained 46% of their age-adjusted “normal performance” on long-term memory tests, whereas patients in the placebo group worsened by 26%.

Findings from the research confirm that nicotine stimulates receptors on neurons involved in learning and memory. According to lead scientist, Paul Newhouse, “if it helps in early Alzheimer’s, we might be able to move back even further into patients with mild memory loss.” The six-month trial suggested the nicotine was safe. But Newhouse cautioned that smoking or unsupervised use of the patch is not.

Keep in mind that no one is suggesting that smoking of tobacco is good for you or anyone around you, as tobacco contains dozens of noxious, toxic, and carcinogenic compounds, and even second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke (such as smoke residue on clothing) is responsible for a multitude of illnesses and societal harm. Nor is anyone suggesting that people should start using nicotine patches by themselves, as a medication such as nicotine should only be used with a doctor’s supervision. However, if you or a loved one has Parkinson’s and would like to participate in a clinical trial, you may want to visit Michael J. Fox Foundation’s Clinical Trial Finder. If you or a loved one would like to participate in an Alzheimer’s clinical trial, you may want to visit the National Institute on Aging Alzheimer’s Education and Referral Website.

If you or a loved one is suffering from Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease, we at The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Elder Care Firm of Evan H. Farr, P.C. are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering and their loved ones.  We can help you prepare for your future financial and long-term care needs.  We help protect your hard-earned assets while maintaining your comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring your eligibility for critical government benefits. Please call us at 703-691-1888 in Fairfax or 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation.

P.S. For details on the health benefits of nicotine in treating Schizophrenia and other mental disorders, please read our blog post on the subject.

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