Common drug for liver disease may help treat dementia in younger patients

YORK, United Kingdom — When most people think about dementia, they probably associate it with older adults. Unfortunately, there are forms of the disease which strike younger patients, even before they turn 50. Now, researchers in the United Kingdom say a common drug for fighting liver disease may also be able to protect the brain.

A study by the universities of York and Sheffield finds ursodeoxycholic acid, a medication for cirrhosis, can help defend against Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD). This form of dementia damages the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. In half the cases of FTD, patients have a genetic history of the disease in their family lines. Unlike forms of dementia which typically occur in older adults, like Alzheimer’s disease, FTD is more common in patients who are 45 to 65 years-old.

The British team says exams on the brain cells of fruit flies and rats show Ursodeoxycholic Acid increases the proteins which protects neurons from death. Although researchers are still working to figure out how the cirrhosis medication protects brain neurons, they report the drug carries a very low risk of harming patients.

“We are on the cusp of being able to ‘repurpose’ a drug used for a liver complaint, that has very little toxicity in humans,” Dr. Sean Sweeney says in a university release.

“The mechanism of action for this drug is currently unknown and the work we will now do to increase our understanding of how it works may help us lengthen and improve the lives of patients with FTD and potentially other neurodegenerative conditions too.”

Dementia in the genes

Study authors add at least nine genes may play a roles in humans developing Frontotemporal Dementia. Doctors Ryan West and Chris Ugbode use one of these nine genes to create a model of the disease in the fruit fly and rat neurons.

By experimenting on this genetic model, the team discovered Ursodeoxycholic Acid keeps these brain cells in better overall health. While this breakthrough gives scientists a new tool in the fight against cognitive decline, the study finds this drug can’t undo brain cell death or completely stop dementia.

“In our lab models the drug was effective for treating Frontotemporal Dementia and motor neuron disease, but it does not rectify the underlying deficits, suggesting that the drug is neuro-protective but not a cure,” Dr. West explains.

“There’s no way to slow down or cure frontotemporal dementia, one of the most common forms of dementia in people under 65, so we’re excited to see an existing drug stopping brain cells from dying,” Fiona Carragher of the Alzheimer’s Society adds.

The study appears in the journal Neurobiology of Disease.

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