We know that the changes that happen to the brain in diabetes look similar to those that happen in Alzheimer’s. In fact, people with diabetes have a 75 to 100 percent higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s, according to Rachel Whitmer, an epidemiologist at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research who studies large populations to pinpoint risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. With that in mind, a group of scientists tested a class of drugs meant to treat Type 2 Diabetes on mice with Alzheimer’s, and they found it significantly reversed memory loss.
Past studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s have trouble processing glucose—the brain’s main source of energy. People with diabetes experience the same issue. The drug used in the study, which was published in the journal Brain Research, helps balance blood sugar and metabolism. Scientists hope balancing how the brain processes glucose helps delay or halt Alzheimer’s disease.
In the study, mice engineered to have the symptoms and brain pathology of Alzheimer’s who were injected daily for two months showed less inflammation, less plaques and improved neuron growth when compared to the control group.
“These very promising outcomes demonstrate the efficacy of these novel multiple receptor drugs that originally were developed to treat type 2 diabetes but have shown consistent neuro-protective effects in several studies,” said lead author Professor Christian Holscher of Lancaster University.
More studies are needed before we can conclude that this is an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, especially because this was an animal study. Those who follow Alzheimer’s drug development closely know that even with optimistic results, it’s not cause for celebration yet; three Phase 3 trials, the stage before the FDA approves a drug, failed in the last year, one of which focused on a similar brain energy model.
What is encouraging is that a human trial using the diabetes drug liraglutide has expanded into an ongoing study after seeing positive results. The good news, points out Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at the Alzheimer’s Society, is that if an already-approved drug also treats Alzheimer’s, that shaves years off the hoops new drugs typically have to jump through, getting treatment into the hands of patients sooner.
“With no new treatments in nearly 15 years, we need to find new ways of tackling Alzheimer’s,” said Brown. “It’s imperative that we explore whether drugs developed to treat other conditions can benefit people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. This approach to research could make it much quicker to get promising new drugs to the people who need them.”