The link between cardiovascular health and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s is well-established. Now, a new study finds that oral anticoagulants — drugs that help prevent blood clots and strokes — may have potential in treating Alzheimer’s disease.
Though the causes behind Alzheimer’s are varied and complex, scientists do know that impaired cerebral blood flow is one mechanism that can occur in and contribute to the disease.
This is particularly apparent in a group of conditions known as vascular dementia, which often overlap with Alzheimer’s disease. Vascular dementia can be caused by blood clots or damaged blood vessels. Half of dementia cases are triggered by vascular disease, which can cause decreased blood flow to neurons in the brain, and result in cell death.
The researchers of the latest study set out to examine whether anticoagulants’ effects on preventing blood clots could have an impact on Alzheimer’s risk.
Vascular Health and Anticoagulants
The study, conducted at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cardiovasculares (CNIC) in Spain, focused on how one particular oral anticoagulant known as dabigatran may help protect the brain.
Dabigatran’s main purpose is to stop blood clots from happening. It’s typically prescribed to treat deep vein thrombosis, which involves blood clots in the leg, or pulmonary embolism, which causes blood clots in the lung.
This medication is also used as a preventive measure to avoid the risk of these conditions happening again. It can also prevent strokes or blood clots in people with atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation occurs when someone has an irregular heartbeat, and it increases the risk of blood clots and strokes. Usually, dabigatran is taken by mouth as a pill or capsule.
In the study, the researchers gave mice a long-term anticoagulation treatment with dabigatran. They examined whether it would have an impact on the mice’s cerebral circulation, or the process of blood moving through veins and arteries in the brain.
A year of this treatment resulted in the mice having no memory loss or impairment in the brain’s blood flow. Dabigatran also showed benefits in alleviating certain Alzheimer’s symptoms — like cerebral inflammation, damaged blood vessels and amyloid protein plaques.
“Winning the battle against Alzheimer’s disease will require individualized combination therapy targeting the various processes that contribute to this disease,” Dr. Marta Cortes Canteli, a researcher at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cardiovasculares (CNIC), said in a press release. “One goal is to improve the cerebral circulation, and our study shows that treatment with oral anticoagulants has the potential to be an effective approach in Alzheimer’s patients with a tendency to coagulation.”
The Brain and the Heart
It’s well-known that heart health plays a huge role in a person’s brain health or cognitive state. Research has shown that certain lifestyle changes — like exercise, adherence to a Mediterranean diet and lowering high blood pressure — not only benefits the heart, but also reduces dementia risk.
There’s still no treatment or cure for vascular dementia or Alzheimer’s. But the researchers of the latest study believe the findings around anticoagulants may spur further interest in this type of drug as another pathway to fight Alzheimer’s.
They also hope to continue pushing for new therapies that target the larger heart-brain link.
“Neurodegenerative diseases are very closely linked to disease in the cerebral blood vessels,” Dr. Valentin Fuster, General Director at CNIC and lead author of the study, said in the press release. “The study of the links between the brain and heart is the major challenge for the next ten years.”
The next steps for the research will involve finding ways to diagnose and identify Alzheimer’s patients who have a predisposition to coagulation, or blood clots. “This will be an important line of research in the coming years,” Cantelli said.