An anti-seizure drug called levetiracetam was found to have extra benefits for people with Alzheimer’s: Not only did it address Alzheimer’s-related seizures; it appeared to improve spatial memory and cognitive function.
Almost 60 percent of people with Alzheimer’s also show signs of seizure-like brain activity. In total, more than one fifth of people with Alzheimer’s will actually experience seizures, leading to physical convulsions. Treating this symptom would improve health and quality of life, but new research probes the question: Could it also improve cognitive function and memory?
Following up on research in animals showing cognitive benefits from treating seizures, Dr. Keith Vossel of the department of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles’ David Geffen School of Medicine and colleagues conducted a clinical trial for Alzheimer’s. The anti-seizure drug levetiracetam also improved spatial memory and cognitive function. His team’s findings were published in September in JAMA Neurology.
In the clinical trial, 34 patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s were randomized into two different groups. One group received levetiracetam for four weeks followed by four weeks of a placebo while the other group started with four weeks of placebo and then transitioned to four weeks of levetiracetam. The dosage in this study was significantly lower than what is usually prescribed for seizure disorders like epilepsy.
Using overnight electroencephalography, the participants slept while electrodes placed on the head allowed researchers to measure the activity of electrical signals in the brain. This was complemented with an hour of magnetoencephalography, an approach to measure the magnetic field created by the brain’s natural electrical activity. Out of the 34 people in the study, 13 showed abnormal electrical activity in the brain. These abnormal signals reflect the potential for seizure activity.
To assess memory, experimenters used the virtual route learning test which involves memorizing a route in a virtual-reality environment. In the Stroop interference test, many different color-related words are presented. The person needs to name the color of the word’s font as fast as possible; speed and accuracy provide a measure of cognitive function. For example, when presented with the text PURPLE (written in red text), the participant would need to identify the color red.
While the anti-seizure drug didn’t show an overall benefit, among participants with seizure-like brain activity, it improved spatial memory and cognitive functioning. Since levetiracetam was so well-tolerated, Vossel and colleagues suggested that anti-seizure drugs could complement or even enhance other strategies for treating Alzheimer’s and its symptoms.
Levetiracetam was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000 for treating epilepsy. The generic version of the drug may cost as little as $70 per year — which may become a cost-effective way to manage Alzheimer’s symptoms. While levetiracetam showed potential utility in the short term, it is no indication of long-term efficacy.“There are other studies that are ongoing to see if the drug can help slow the disease course over longer periods,” Vossel explained in a news release.
These future studies will also focus on other anti-seizure medications in a more diverse study population, to glean whether any of these previously approved drugs also improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Future clinical trials may lead to repurposing some existing drugs for treating symptoms of Alzheimer’s.