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Dementia Study Raises Alzheimer's Treatment Hope

10 January 2011

Scientists at the University of Ulster have found that new diabetes drugs enhance cell growth in the brain, following a study that could have promising implications in the search to find a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

In a study funded by the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, biomedical researchers at University of Ulster’s Coleraine campus studied the effects of two drugs - liraglutide (Victoza) and exenatide (Exendin 4, Byetta) - as part of an investigation into the link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

In type 2 diabetes, the drugs are used to mimic a hormone called GLP-1, which helps the body produce insulin. But the team at Ulster, led by Dr Christian Hölscher, found that in mice with diabetes, the drugs also stimulated the growth of new brain cells.

They now hope their findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience Research, could help scientists in the search for a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s – the most common cause of dementia, which affects more than 600 people in Coleraine alone and 15,700 people across Northern Ireland.

Further research by the same team found that in mice with Alzheimer’s, liraglutide enhanced brain cell growth and reduced the build-up of a protein called amyloid in the brain – a key feature of the disease – as well as protecting the formation of memories.

Dr Hölscher, who presented his latest findings at the prestigious Society for Neurosciences annual meeting, said: “It has been known for some time that diabetes is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease, and we know that in diabetes, the growth and replacement of cells in the brain are compromised, putting the brain at risk of further damage.

“We are very excited about our results, which show that these drugs are able to enter the brain, where they can help protect and replace cells. Because the drugs are already approved for use in people, this is a rich field for future research, and we would now like to see clinical trials to test the effects of these drugs in people with Alzheimer’s.”

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, said: “The link between diabetes and dementia is well-known, and these encouraging results suggest a need for further investigation to see whether these drugs could be helpful in Alzheimer’s.

“We need to see the results of clinical trials before we can know if the effects seen in this study will be seen in people, and this only serves to highlight the need for more research.”

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