Alzheimer’s drug might prevent all symptoms if given early enough, study finds

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Could a drug currently used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease curb the condition entirely if given early enough?

Researchers with the University of Virginia believe that the drug memantine, which is used to treat moderate to severe symptoms of Alzheimer’s, might actually prevent or slow the progression of the disease if started before symptoms appear.

“Ideally, we would prevent it from starting in the first place,” suggests study lead George Bloom, a university professor and chair of the Department of Biology, in a media release.

“Based on what we’ve learned so far, it is my opinion that we will never be able to cure Alzheimer’s disease by treating patients once they become symptomatic,” says Bloom. “The best hope for conquering this disease is to first recognize patients who are at risk, and begin treating them prophylactically with new drugs and perhaps lifestyle adjustments that would reduce the rate at which the silent phase of the disease progresses.”

Researchers analyzed lab results on mice that showed what happens at the molecular level in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Although most neurons develop before birth and never again divide, a compromise in the neuron’s protective shield in the course of Alzheimer’s causes the neuron to attempt to divide.

“It’s been estimated that as much as 90 percent of neuron death that occurs in the Alzheimer’s brain follows this cell cycle reentry process, which is an abnormal attempt to divide,” says Bloom. “By the end of the course of the disease, the patient will have lost about 30 percent of the neurons in the frontal lobes of the brain.”

Memantine closes the loophole and keeps neurons in a stable state, researchers found. The added advantage of this FDA-approved Alzheimer’s drug is that it has few side effects.

The authors say that using memantine as a preventive treatment calls first for screening for Alzheimer’s biomarkers years before any symptoms show up. Any patients who might benefit would probably need to take this Alzheimer’s drug their entire lives.

“The experiments suggest that memantine might have potent disease-modifying properties if it could be administered to patients long before they have become symptomatic and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease,” says Bloom. “Perhaps this could prevent the disease or slow its progression long enough that the average age of symptom onset could be significantly later, if it happens at all.”

Researchers with the university say that the next step is designing a clinical trial to determine memantine’s use as a protective early intervention against Alzheimer’s disease.

“I don’t want to raise false hopes,” adds Bloom, but “if this idea of using memantine as a prophylactic pans out, it will be because we now understand that calcium is one of the agents that gets the disease started, and we may be able to stop or slow the process if done very early.”

The findings are published online in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia.