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Experimental Drug Could Reverse Memory Loss and Treat Mental Disorders

Neuron in the Brain


Researchers in Toronto hope a new drug will help people who suffer from memory loss due to old age, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and depression.

Memory loss is partly linked to levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA, whose primary job is to dampen electrical “noise” in the brain by slowing the rate at which neurons fire. Research shows that lowering this background noise allows key signals in the brain to be processed more efficiently.

If the experimental drug proves to safe and effective after all testing is complete, people over 55 can take the pill every day to prevent memory lapses.

How Does the Drug Work?

A derivative of benzodiazepine, the new drug targets GABA “receptors” in principal parts of the brain involved in cognition, such as the hippocampus.

After their latest research the team in Toronto found they could grow brain cells using the drug. The team put the drug in the drinking water of older mice whose brain cells had shrunk. After drinking the drug-infused water for two months, their brain cells grew back.

“We can actually grow the brain cells,” Etienne Sibille, from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, told the Guardian. “They tend to shrink with age and they shrink in neurodegenerative diseases. What we see is that the cells grow to a level that’s pretty close to that in young animals.”

Test Results of the Drug

When tested in a lab, older mice had greatly improved memory skills after just half an hour of receiving the drug. In fact, scientists gave the drug to mice in a maze. The performance of the older mice was nearly as good as that of the younger animals.

“An old mouse will naturally perform at about 50-60 percent on this test. Its working memory is basically not working. But within 30 minutes of administration of the drug, their performance is back up to 80-90 percent, so almost at the level of a young mouse. We have a rapid reversal of age-related working memory deficit and that is exciting,” Sibille said.

The drug did not benefit young healthy mice, however. It is not intended to work as a cognitive memory enhancer for healthy people. “It’s not a drug a student would take if they wanted to be smarter when they study for their exams,” Sibille said.

Human Testing Is the Next Phase

The next phase of testing the drug is expected to be in humans, more specifically people who suffer from depression. People with mental impairments and memory problems are the most likely to relapse into depression, Sibille explained.

“If we could somehow treat those deficits we could potentially have a major impact on the lifelong trajectory of the illness in those people. It would be a game changer in how we treat depression,” he said.

Currently, there are no drugs on the market that improve memory loss associated with old age or psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression. The Toronto research team believes the drug can target and rejuvenate brain cells involved in memory and learning. The researchers are hopeful the drug can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and potentially prevent memory loss in the beginning stages.

“Our findings have direct implications for poor cognition in normal ageing,” Sibille said. “But we see this deficiency across disorders from depression to schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.”

Scientists submitted a patent request on the new drug on Feb. 13.

Leighanna Shirey

Leighanna graduated with a degree in English from Pensacola Christian College. After teaching high school English for five years, she decided to pursue her dream of writing and editing. When not working, she enjoys traveling with her husband, spending time with her dogs, and drinking way too much coffee.

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