New Study Shows that Nicotine Is Safe and Even Beneficial
Everyone knows that smoking is dangerous and can lead to a variety of diseases, but what makes a cigarette so dangerous? Many people believe that nicotine is the enemy because it can be highly addictive and it leads people to continue using tobacco for years or even decades. However, new research shows that nicotine isn’t the enemy after all. In fact, tobacco is the real culprit behind a cigarette’s deadly impact on the body. We know smoking damages the lungs and has a negative impact on cardiovascular health, but nicotine is actually a calming chemical that appears to have some major benefits to the brain as we age.
Scientists have been puzzled to discover that smokers are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease. This is ironic because cardiovascular disease is strongly linked to the risk for developing Alzheimer’s and smoking can do major damage to the cardiovascular system. With further study, scientists found that smoking wasn’t the key to lowering risk for Alzheimer’s. It was actually nicotine.
To test the positive nicotine theory, researchers tested how nicotine patches would impact those with Alzheimer’s. Sure enough, the patients that wore patches had better memory recollection and were better able to focus on a task. Another study tested the impact of nicotine on elderly patients without Alzheimer’s. While the test subjects had precious shown age-related decline in mental capabilities, the nicotine boosted cognitive function. Researchers discovered that nicotine also offers some protection against Parkinson’s Disease, a devastating condition where brain cells begin to die in a small region of the brain, causing constant tremors and cognitive challenges.
For those who have grown up in the anti-smoking culture of today, this information seems ludicrous. How could something like nicotine really be helping mental function when cigarettes are so highly linked to death and disease?
It turns out that nicotine really isn’t all that addictive on its own. Dr. Paul Newhouse, director of Vanderbilt University Center for Cognitive Medicine said cigarette addiction seems to be more closely linked to tobacco than nicotine. “People won’t smoke without nicotine in cigarettes, but they won’t take nicotine by itself,” he said. “Nicotine is not reinforcing enough. That’s why FDA agreed nicotine could be sold over the counter. No one wants to take it because it’s not pleasant enough by itself. And it’s hard to get animals to self-administer nicotine the way they will with cocaine.”
Dr. Newhouse discovered that nicotine’s chemical properties are very similar to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that shows marked decline in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Pharmaceutical solutions like Aricept work to boost acetylcholine levels in the brain, but nicotine seems to offer the same solution.
Interestingly, nicotine’s brain-boosting powers seem to be limited to those with cognitive impairments. “Nicotine doesn’t appear to enhance normal people,” Newhouse explained, “but in people who show some degree of cognitive impairment, nicotine appears to produce a modest but measurable effect on cognitive function, particularly areas of attention, and, to some extent, memory.”
The new nicotine research is promising and Dr. Newhouse and his team are also doing trials to see how nicotine could benefit chemotherapy patients that often complain of mental fogginess. They are also doing research on patients with Down Syndrome because they are prone to developing Alzheimer’s disease during middle age. Future studies could include HIV patients because the disease has been linked to faster mental decline.
Newhouse said nicotine is a promising treatment option because there are virtually no side effects when it is used outside of tobacco. “It seems very safe even to nonsmokers,” he said. “In our studies we find it actually reduces blood pressure chronically. And there were no addiction or withdrawal problems, and nobody started smoking cigarettes. The risk of addiction to nicotine alone is virtually nil.”
While researchers are primarily studying nicotine delivery through patches, it would certainly be interesting to see how electronic cigarettes would perform in the same trials. E-cigs are tobacco-free, but they provide nicotine without the chemicals and second hand smoke. This research is definitely promising, especially for older smokers that have made the switch to electronic cigarettes.
Dr. Newhouse said nicotine alone isn’t addictive. Do you agree? Would you be able to stop using nicotine without any problems?