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 Two Studies Offer Hopeful Glimpses Into New Treatments for Dementia

The spring has brought forth two studies that offer glimpses of hope to the world’s millions affected by dementia, as researchers in Ireland and the United States have found two potential lines of treatment in common drugs.
 
In the most recent study, published this week in the journal, Science Translational Medicine, a team of researchers found that commonly prescribed antidepressants drastically reduce the amount and size of amyloid plaques, the fibrous proteins that form in the brains of the victims of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
 
That comes on the heels of a report by two Irish researchers, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in March, that a key chemical in marijuana may not only help treat some of the secondary conditions of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases, but may help prevent them in the first place.
 
Neither study offers itself as a final answer—indeed, the authors of both studies acknowledge that their findings are preliminary (the antidepressant study mostly focused on mice, with only a handful of human volunteers, and the marijuana researchers admit that the drug’s role in treatment “remains controversial”). But when nearly one-quarter of the world’s over-80 population is thought to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease alone, any rays of light might feel like a sunburst.
 
In the antidepressant studies, researchers literally shaved down the skulls of laboratory mice so that they could examine their brains and the formulation of amyloid plaques in real time. Researchers gave some mice citalopram—a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) often prescribed for anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder under its brand names, Celexa and Cipramil—and saw existing plaque stop growing, while the growth of new plaques fell by 78 percent.
 
It’s not clear if the plaques are a cause of Alzheimer’s or an effect, but mountains of research have shown that depression is a common secondary affliction of those suffering from dementia. Lead researcher Yvette Sheline of the University of Pennsylvania has studied the effects of antidepressants and dementia before and believes she and her colleagues are on to something.
 
“Every SSRI we have tested in mouse models has the same effect on lowering amyloid concentrations,” she tells The Scientist Magazine.
 
Some researchers are hoping, then, that they can begin clinical trials in humans to see whether antidepressants can help prevent dementia.
 
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Trinity College, Dublin, scientists S.G. Fagan and V.A. Campbell say that a growing body of research on THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, shows that it may well help prevent the formation of misshapen proteins, the chronic inflammation, the toxicity, and oxidation in the brain commonly associated not only in dementia but in Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, too.
 
“Various models of inflammation have reported the beneficial effects of cannabinoid action on reducing the inflammatory burden,” the team writes. Cannabis and its synthetic equivalents appear to activate what are called CB2 receptors in the brain, which in turn “is emerging as a key regulator of many neuronal systems that are relevant to neurodegenerative disorders,” Fagan and Campbell say.
 
(Bill Myers is Provider’s senior editor. E-mail him at wmyers@providermagazine.com. Follow him on Twitter, @ProviderMyers.)
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