The patches, intended to help smokers give up, are being tried out in Leicester on people suffering from Tourette's Syndrome, which causes outbursts of swearing, tics, and other involuntary movements. Mozart was said to be a sufferer.
Up to 30 patients are to be recruited to a year-long trial of the patches. The first patient has already undergone therapy with encouraging results, according to Professor Michael Reveley of the department of psychiatry at Leicester University.
Nicotine affects certain nerve receptor sites in the body and parts of the brain concerned with movement. An imbalance of neurotransmitters - chemicals produced by nerve cells which transmit messages through the body - is believed to be responsible for disorders such as Tourette's.
It is not known why nicotine is beneficial but 'by stimulating the nicotine receptors we may be correcting the imbalance in some way', Professor Reveley said.
There was no curative treatment for Tourette's, said Professor Reveley, who is conducting the trial with Dr Serdar Dursun. Some of the symptoms can be suppressed with anti-psychotic drugs, but these have unpleasant side-effects, such as muscle stiffness, which lead many people to give up the treatments.
'We are in the very early days of our research - the idea for which sprang from a letter published in the Lancet last year which suggested the beneficial effect of nicotine on victims of Tourette's Syndrome. Our aim is to establish the long- term effects of the nicotine patch not only on tics but also on associated disorders . . . such as obsessive-compulsive symptoms, sleep abnormalities and depression.'
The scientists will also use a computer programme to help monitor the patients' abnormal movements and record any changes during the nicotine therapy.
Tourette's starts in childhood with repetitive grimaces and tics, usually of the head and neck but sometimes involving the limbs and trunk. Sufferers may make involuntary barks and grunts as the disease progresses and in about half of cases, episodes of coprolalia - bad language - are common. The syndrome is believed to be widely under-diagnosed.
Sufferers from another disorder, tardive dyskinesia, which causes involuntary violent movements, may also benefit from nicotine therapy.