Nicotine’s brain-boosting effects ease Tourette’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s

Nicotine’s brain-boosting effects ease Tourette’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s

While Harvard Medical School and “P”JAMA (the Prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association) are telling the world that smoking tobacco will drive you crazy, there are lots of reports from other equally prestigious scientific bodies that reveal the possible benefits of nicotine.

Researchers say preliminary studies show nicotine and nicotine-like drugs can improve behavior and performance in patients with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Tourette’s syndrome.

In fact, Tourette’s and tobacco have been getting a lot of favorable publicity lately, so let’s take a few minutes to go over this peculiar condition. When the behavior of a Tourette’s patient is observed, it is usually amusing and tragic at the same time. Children will often burst out laughing. A perfectly normal-looking person will suddenly scream out “YAK!” or, unfortunately, a vulgar expletive and then appear normal again. There may also be a body distortion, such as a violent twisting of the neck. Then the patient will carry on as if nothing had happened.

But a few years ago, the University of South Florida conducted a study on Tourette’s victims, measuring the effects of nicotine patches on symptom severity and frequency. Although nicotine patches are a crude method of delivery compared to smoking cigars or using intravenous nicotine drip injections, their results were astounding.

The researchers followed patients ranging in age from 9 to 15 who responded poorly to haloperidol (Haldol) or other drugs commonly given to treat Tourette’s. When the drug was combined with a low-dose nicotine patch worn for 24 hours, then removed, the “benefits of the medication” increased an average of 45 percent. Researchers noted an 80 percent reduction in motor tics, verbal tics, and behavioral problems in children with Tourette’s. Symptom relief occurred within three hours of administering the patch and lasted up to 10 days after the patch was removed.

Of course, the results would probably have been even better without the depressing effect of tranquilizing drugs that are used to “treat” practically anything, from Tourette’s to shoplifting. In fact, according to the lead researcher of the study, Dr. Paul Sanberg, patients given a choice invariably choose the nicotine treatment over the antipsychotic drugs. The drugs have potent and extremely unpleasant side effects. The only side effect of the nicotine is an improvement in Tourette’s.

But that’s not the extent of nicotine’s benefits.

Patch leads to major improvements in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

Sanberg and his colleague Dr. Paul Newhouse have also presented several other studies that show how nicotine and experimental nicotine-like substances seem to help patients struggling with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Researchers treated 15 Parkinson’s patients with varying levels of intravenous nicotine, nicotine plus the oral blood pressure medication mecamylamine, or placebos. The patients were then placed on nicotine patches for two weeks. The results?

“Nicotine appeared to improve performance speed in all three clinical performance tasks. In most cases, improvement appeared to persist after drug withdrawal,” reported Dr. Newhouse.

After Parkinson’s disease, they went to work on Alzheimer’s disease–with the same positive results. They administered patches of ABT-418, a substance very structurally similar to nicotine, to a group of seven Alzheimer’s patients. The patch appeared to cause “marked improvement in [the patients'] memory”–some patients nearly doubled their recall ability.

But Newhouse did concede that there are pros and cons to the nicotine patches: They can cause side effects like nausea or itchiness at the patch site. On the positive side, Newhouse said “The patch by itself is not reinforcing for addiction. You don’t see kids at school trying to score nicotine patches.”

Despite the good news, the researchers caution that the study results are preliminary, and the numbers of patients involved are small. “On the basis of these studies, it is really too early to recommend the use of these patches for patients with these disorders,” said Dr. Newhouse. “It would be a bit rash to suggest that people buy these patches without long-term studies.”

Get nicotine’s benefits starting right now

Right. So while waiting for the long-term studies, light up and enjoy a cool smoke. This is a very enjoyable form of self-treatment. But the researchers won’t ever tell you to do this. They make sure to cover their backsides, saying “none of us advocate smoking.”

Well, Paul, maybe you should advocate smoking in moderation–that’s certainly my message.

Of course, I have been asked: “Do you expect children to smoke cigars, or–God help us–cigarettes?” So I have a compromise between the not-maximally-effective nicotine patch and the spectacle of a 6-year-old puffing on a cigar: sublingual nicotine lozenges or oral tablets. I doubt either of these have been investigated, but they should be.

Actions to take:

In the meantime, you can buy nicotine patches at your local drug store, but you’ll get better results by smoking three good-quality cigars a day. Just don’t inhale. You want absorption through the mucous membranes of your mouth and alimentary canal, not your lungs.


“Nicotine Is ‘Latest Cure for Mental Ailments,’” NewsMax (, 2/22/00

“News and Research Articles about Tourette’s Syndrome: Nicotine & Tourette’s,” Tourette’ (, viewed 1/6/03

“A Cigarette Chemical Packed With Helpful Effects?” The Washington Post, 11/9/98, page A03

“Nicotine: helping those who help themselves?” Chemistry & Industry magazine, 7/6/98