Alzheimer's hope (copy)

Dr. Jacobo Mintzer, Executive Director of the Roper St. Francis Research and Innovation Center, and Amanda Watts, a former clinical research coordinator, work on paperwork in one of their offices. 

It may come as a surprise, but nicotine has been found to have a positive impact on brain activity.

Don't expect experts to start handing out cigarettes for brain health research, but the discovery did trigger a new national study into how non-addictive nicotine patches can stimulate the brain.

“We know it’s likely to affect memory and attention,” said Dr. Jacobo Minzter, chief research and innovation officer at Roper St. Francis.

Currently, 29 national research sites, including Roper St. Francis, are seeking participants for the study on memory improvement through nicotine dosing — or the MIND study. The project will be a two-year review that could shed light on possible positive impacts of nicotine on memory impairment.

In a 2004 study, researchers believed that people with disorders like adult ADHD and schizophrenia tended to smoke cigarettes heavily because it was potentially soothing some of their disorder symptoms.

With difficulty in maintaining attention or concentration being one of those symptoms, researchers have found that nicotine activates specific areas in the brain that call for concentration and attention during specific tasks.

With the MIND study, researchers want to see if controlled nicotine usage could take brain research a step further, specifically with a condition known as Mild Cognitive Impairment or MCI.

“The goal is to completely understand how the nicotine patch can improve the memory of people with MCI,” Minzter said.

MCI often appears as an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Not everyone who has MCI will have it progress to Alzheimer’s but MCI does involve mild memory loss and difficulty with language and making decisions.

Mintzer explained that while aging often involves memory loss, the memory loss with MCI is a little more intense. Still, it may be overlooked if not properly diagnosed by an expert.

About 15 to 20 percent of people between the ages of 65 and older have MCI, according to the national Alzheimer’s Association.

“It’s something that they may not notice in their everyday life,” Minzter said.

MIND study participants will first be extensively examined to determine if they have MCI. Once that is established, then over the next two years participants will be given either nicotine or placebo patches to be taken daily while also coming in every three months for a total of 12 visits.

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By the end of the study, Minzter said the hope is that they have a better understanding of how the nicotine works and develop an FDA approved treatment of MCI symptoms since one does not exist. Ideally, researchers also want to see if a nicotine treatment could be effective in delaying the progression of MCI to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Mintzer compared that possibility to someone rolling down a hill. “If I push you higher it will take you longer to go down,” he said.

For those with MCI, the nicotine may turn out to be an effective treatment and may delay that downhill progression to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Cindy Alewine, CEO of South Carolina chapter of Alzheimer’s Association, explained that this is why it’s important for people to be involved in these types of studies.

One of the most significant barriers in doing any kind of research with Alzheimer’s is funding, she said. The second barrier is finding enough participants.

“We encourage people to get involved in clinical trials,” she said. “We don’t know what is going to ultimately lead us to stop the disease.”

Minzter said while researchers seek tools to treat all stages of the disease, "our goal is to improve the quality of life of people.”

Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.