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Published on: February 16, 2019
by The Guardian:
An experimental drug that bolsters ailing brain cells has raised hopes of a treatment for memory loss, poor decision making and other mental impairments that often strike in old age.
The drug could be taken as a daily pill by over-55s if clinical trials, which are expected to start within two years, show that the medicine is safe and effective at preventing memory lapses.
Tests in the lab showed that old animals had far better memory skills half an hour after receiving the drug. After two months on the treatment, brain cells which had shrunk in the animals had grown back, scientists found.
Etienne Sibille, at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said the treatment was aimed not only at the “normal” cognitive decline that leads to senior moments, but at memory loss and mental impairments that commonly afflict people with depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
If the drug did well in human trials, Sibille said it was possible that “anybody over the age of 55-60 who may be at risk of cognitive problems later on could benefit from this treatment”.
“Our findings have direct implications for poor cognition in normal ageing,” he said, with the drug potentially improving learning, memory, decision making and essential life planning. “But we see this deficiency across disorders from depression to schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.”
There are no medicines on the market that improve the sort of memory loss seen in old age and psychiatric disorders such as depression and schizophrenia. But the Toronto researchers believe their drug can reverse failing memories by targeting specific cells involved in learning and memory, and rejuvenating them. The changes the drug brings about in the brain suggest it could prevent memory loss at the beginning of Alzheimer’s and potentially delay its onset.
Research on memory loss has shown that it is partly linked to levels of a neurotransmitter known as GABA. Its normal job is to slow down the rate at which neurons fire, effectively dampening down electrical “noise” in the brain. Lower this background noise and important signals in the brain can be processed more easily, or so the theory goes.
The new drug is a derivative of benzodiazepine, a family of medicines that includes the anti-anxiety pills Valium and Xanax. While Valium and Xanax have broad effects in the brain, the new drug is designed to target specific GABA “receptors” found on neurons in key parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, which are heavily involved in cognition.
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