We May Have New Drugs To Fight Dementia—And They Were Here All Along

Brilliance | Dec. 14, 2017

In the fight against neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's, there may be no need to make fancy new drugs. According to experiments in mice, two existing drugs may be able to keep brain cells healthy—even though that was far from their original purpose.

A New Discovery in Old Drugs

Neurodegeneration is what happens when cells in the brain and spinal cord shut down and die, leading to diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, and dementia. Researchers in the UK have found two drugs that helped restore memory and reduce signs of neurodegeneration in mice, according to the UK's National Health Service (NHS). The best part? They both already existed, so their regulatory journey into the hands of patients may be that much shorter.

In the study, the researchers analyzed a library of more than 1,000 compounds. About three-quarters of them had already been approved by the FDA, meaning they were licensed for use in patients. They searched for drugs that had the potential to prevent brain cells from shutting down in the presence of faulty proteins, and found two: trazodone, a drug that's already being used to treat patients with depression, and DBM, a compound found in licorice that's currently being tested to see if it can treat cancer. After infecting mice with a disease that can cause neurodegeneration, the researchers treated them with one or the other of these drugs. Then they tested the mice's memory of objects and analyzed their brains for any damage or shrinkage, as the NHS reports. Mice treated with either of these compounds showed signs that their neurodegeneration had been halted.

We're Not Quite There Yet

The good news is that because these drugs are already used in humans, we're pretty certain they're safe, unlike previous treatments for neurodegeneration. But even though researchers have seen these effects in mice, it doesn't mean they'll see them in humans. Researchers have to conduct clinical trials on human subjects before the drugs could be marketed and available, the NHS says.

"This research is at a very early stage and has not yet been tested in people—but as one of the drugs is already available as a treatment for depression, the time taken to get from the lab to the pharmacy could be dramatically reduced," Dr. Doug Brown, the Director of Research and Development at the Alzheimer's Society, said in a University of Cambridge press release. How reduced? Co-author Giovanna Mallucci hopes to know whether the drugs are effective within three years.

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