It’s no secret that tobacco products are harmful to one’s health. However, researchers from Texas A&M University suggest that a component of the products—nicotine—taken independently may help protect the brain as it ages.

Consuming nicotine independently from tobacco products may even help ward off Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, according to the researchers, in a study published in Open Access Journal of Toxicology.

Nicotine’s brain-protecting ability may be partly due to its well-known ability to suppress the appetite, according to the researchers, in a media release from Texas A&M University.

In their study, Ursula Winzer-Serhan, PhD, an associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, and her collaborators added nicotine to three groups of animals’ drinking water. Each group received different concentrations (low, medium, and high) corresponding to occasional, low, and medium smokers, respectively. In addition, a control group of animals received no nicotine in their drinking water.

The low- and medium-dose animal groups showed no levels of the drug in their blood and experienced no changes in their food intake, body weight, or number of receptors in the brain where nicotine acts. However, the high-dose nicotine group ate less, gained less weight, and had more receptors. The researchers suggest that this may indicate that, at higher doses, nicotine gets into the brain where it can impact behavior.

However, even given at high doses, the nicotine didn’t seem to have behavioral side effects like increasing anxiety, which according to the release the researchers were concerned could happen.

“Some people say that nicotine decreases anxiety, which is why people smoke, but others say it increases anxiety,” Winzer-Serhan says in the release. “The last thing you would want in a drug that is given chronically would be a negative change in behavior. Luckily, we didn’t find any evidence of anxiety: Only two measures showed any effect even with high levels of nicotine, and if anything, nicotine made animal models less anxious.”

According to the release, the next step in Winzer-Serhan and colleagues’ research will be to test nicotine’s potential anti-aging effects using aged animal models. Although early results indicate that nicotine can keep older individuals from gaining weight like the control group does, Winzer-Serhan hasn’t yet determined whether this lower body mass index translates into less degeneration of the brain. It is also unclear if nicotine’s effects are related only to its ability to suppress appetite, or if there are more mechanisms at work.

She concludes in the release by urging caution: “I want to make it very clear that we’re not encouraging people to smoke,” she states. “Even if these weren’t very preliminary results, smoking results in so many health problems that any possible benefit of the nicotine would be more than cancelled out. However, smoking is only one possible route of administration of the drug, and our work shows that we shouldn’t write-off nicotine completely.”

[Source: Texas A&M University]