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Research identifies mysterious relationship between nicotine and Parkinson’s Disease

The medical community will never endorse smoking, but they are beginning to think that the nicotine in combustible tobacco cigarettes and some vapor products may have unexpected medicinal benefits.  For well over a decade, research is suggesting the emergence of a strange relationship between smoking and a person’s health risks of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.  In short, those persons with a history of smoking for several years are found to be far less likely to develop the neurological condition than non-smokers. 

Of course, smoking a pack a day of tobacco cigarettes is not the best way to fight off PD.  The health risks of smoking far outweigh the any potential preventative benefits.  However, scientists are now experimenting with alternative nicotine delivery methods including transdermal patches and even vaping.   

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A 10-year study published by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) perfectly illustrates the seeming strange relationship between nicotine and Parkinson’s Disease.  The study entitled Years of smoking associated with lower Parkinson's risk, not number of cigarettes per day involved some 305,468 AARP members ages 50-70.

At the beginning of the 10-year study, the patients were asked to provide answers to a multi-question survey related to their lifestyle choices and daily diet. The patients were then asked to complete the same survey 10 years later.  During that decade, 1,662 patients – or about 0.5 percent - would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

      • 44 percent of the new Parkinson’s patients had never smoked in their life.
      • People who had smoked and quit were about 22 percent less likely to develop the disorder.
      • Current smokers were 44 percent less likely than non-smokers to developed PD.
      • Participants who had smoked for 40 years or longer were about 46 percent less likely to develop PD.
      • Participants with histories of smoking for 30-39 years were 35 percent less likely to develop PD.
      • Participants with histories of smoking for 1-9 years were only eight percent less likely to develop PD.
      • The risk percentage per patient group did not depend on the numbers of cigarettes smoked per day.

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Regarding the potential importance of the AAN study, one of its co-authors, Dr. Honglei Chen of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, offered the following comments. 

"These results could guide the development of studies on various tobacco components with animal models to help understand the relationship between smoking and Parkinson's disease.  Research to reveal the underlying chemicals and mechanisms is warranted; such studies may lead to a better understanding of the causes of Parkinson's disease. However, given the many adverse consequences of smoking, no one would suggest smoking in order to prevent Parkinson's disease."

The 2010 research was so well received by the scientific community that new and similar clinical trials began sprouting up across the country and around the world.  Movie star Michael J. Fox of Back to the Future fame also took notice.  Fox has been living with Parkinson’s Disease since 1991 when he was only 29 years old.  He had just finished filming Back to the Future III. 

The Michael J. Fox Foundation endorses nicotine transdermal therapy research

In 2013, The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) – a non-profit established by the famous actor with the single goal of finding a cure for Parkinson’s – announced the sponsorship of a nicotine-based research project of its own.  The double-blind study involves 160 Parkinson’s patients living in the United States and Germany who were asked to engage in transdermal nicotine therapies to determine whether the patches might help manage their medical condition and its related symptoms. 

Some participants were given the real thing.  Others were given placebos.  Not even the scientists conducting the research knew which patients were which.  While the experiment is in its final stages and the findings are currently being compiled, U.S. Project Manager Cornelia Kamp remains hopefully optimistic.

“The drug used in the trial is the same exact drug from Novartis that people have used to quit smoking for many years,” Kamp explains on the MJFF website.  The best-case scenario, she continues, is that the research will show that transdermal nicotine therapies can slow progression of the disease, which will hopefully convince large scientific think tanks to conduct more extensive research using larger control groups of PD patients. 

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