Now the Good News About Nicotine
October 23, 2001 -- SCIENTISTS believe nicotine can stave off Alzheimer's disease and a host of other mental diseases - and you don't have to go near a cigarette to get the benefits.
Despite the fact that 60 million have died in the past half-century from smoking-related diseases, smoking is still on the rise, and the reason could be that millions of smokers may be unconsciously self-medicating.
A Dutch study last year showed that Alzheimer's victims smoke twice as much as the general population - which is also true for sufferers of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
Newer research has now shown this could be a case of afflicted people instinctively trying to make up for their own deficiencies.
The most promising finding of all is that nicotine - administered in trans-dermal patches that bypass the mouth and lungs - could actually help those with Alzheimer's.
Dr. Ed Levin, associate professor of psychology at Duke University, in Durham, N.C., and one of the world's leading researchers of nicotine, says nicotine, so closely associated with an undesirable activity, could be a life-saver for people at risk of terminal dementia.
"The best treatment for any disease is prevention, and this may be it," he says.
The discovery is borne out, he says, by the fact that smokers have lower incidences of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease than the non-smoking population.
"Virtually all schizophrenics smoke, and we suspect they are self-medicating; nicotine helps alleviate some of the side-effects of their anti-psychotic drugs, particularly the mental slowing and the memory impairment," he says.
He adds that half of adults with ADD smoke - double the normal population. "Again, we think they are self-medicating," he says.
Nicotine also stimulates the release of serotonin, mimicking the effect of Prozac, as well as the release of dopamine, which may be helpful for Parkinson's sufferers, he says.
Dr. Levin is actually following up findings reported in England 12 years ago.
Despite the far-reaching implications, these results have remained buried in obscure academic texts because they represented too hot a political potato.
"The link between nicotine and Alzheimer's has been known to the research community since the late '80s," says Dr. Jenny Rusted, of Sussex University, who worked on the team headed by veteran nicotine researcher Dr. David Warburton.
"But as nicotine can't be patented, the drug companies didn't get behind funding research. And the tobacco companies weren't interested in funding it, either. The elderly were never going to become as important a market as smokers."