(NBC) - The latest weapon in the fight against memory loss may be found over-the-counter in your drug store.
People may start using the nicotine patch for something other than giving up smoking. There's new evidence it could boost brain power.
"Nicotine-treated patients do better on learning tasks, attention tasks, memory tasks," said Dr. Paul Newhouse of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Dr. Newhouse led a study of non-smoking adults, most of whom were in their mid-70's. They all had mild cognitive impairment, a condition that's a bit more than typical "senior moments," but not quite bad enough to be diagnosed as dementia. Those who wore a nicotine patch for six months did better on tests of memory and thinking skills, while those on a placebo patch did progressively worse.
"We think that nicotine can directly stimulate cells in the brain that are helpful for attention and memory," said Dr. Newhouse.
Although more studies are needed there were no side effects or signs of nicotine addiction or withdrawal even after a year.
"Everything we've seen so far suggests that the benefit is sustained over time," Dr. Newhouse said.
Researchers say those benefits do not mean people should start treating their own memory malfunctions with nicotine in patch or cigarette form. But outside experts say the new research is promising and a necessity.
"A real crisis in this country is the fact that baby boomers are turning into the age of risk for Alzheimer's disease, said Dr. Ron Petersen of the Mayo Clinic. "Just last year the first wave of baby boomers turned 65."
Perhaps a treatment that helps smokers kick the habit can also help kick-start aging brains.
Drug maker Pfizer supplied the nicotine patches for the study, but had no other involvement. The study was sponsored by the National Institute on Aging.