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Drugs developed to treat diabetes could benefit people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at the University of Ulster have discovered that Liraglutide, a drug used to treat type 2 diabetes, may protect brain function and stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Christian Holscher, a Senior Lecturer in Neurobiology in the Biomedical Sciences Research Institute at Ulster’s Coleraine campus, will deliver his findings to over 30,000 delegates at the 40th Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in the San Diego, USA this week.

“In diabetes, insulin loses its effectiveness and research has shown that in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, insulin also has a much reduced effect in the brain. We therefore tested several drugs that have been developed to treat diabetes to find out if they also have protective effects in models of Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr Holscher said.

“A new class of drugs has been developed that mimic the effect of the so- called incretin hormones which increases the amount of insulin released into the blood stream. Two such drugs are on the market as treatments for diabetes. We tested one of these drugs, Liraglutide, in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease. This model expresses a human protein and produces the same plaques that are found in the brains of Alzheimer patients.

“We found that when injecting the drug in the same way that diabetics inject it, the drug enters the brain and protects it from the degenerative processes of Alzheimer’s disease.”

The research team at Ulster discovered that the drug also had significant effects helping memory, with memory formation being protected in the Alzheimer’s model as well as communication between nerve endings being preserved.

“In addition, we found that stem cells in the brain divided much more when the drug is given, and these new cells develop into neurons, which could be one reason why memory formation was protected,” Dr Holscher said.

“Since Liraglutide is currently on the market as a treatment for type 2 diabetes and has shown few side effects in chronic use, the use of such novel drugs as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease is most promising. Therefore, clinical trials in people with the disease would be welcome to investigate in more detail what effects Liraglutide or other novel drugs of this type have.”