Old age and psychiatric disorders such as depression or schizophrenia can lead to memory loss. However, researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto claim they’ve developed a new drug that not only improves memory loss symptoms but also rejuvenates brain cells involved in learning and memory. If confirmed in trials on humans, the targeted therapy could improve the lives of millions of people around the world.
Researchers led by Dr. Etienne Sibille, Deputy Director of the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute, first showed that impairments to brain receptors in the GABA neurotransmitter system were linked to mood and memory symptoms in individuals affected by depression or aging. The role of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) neurotransmitters is to typically inhibit other cells. Their activity cancels “background noise”, allowing other signals to be processed more easily.
The novel molecule developed in the Toronto lab is a derivative of benzodiazepine, a class that also includes Valium and Xanax. But while these pills have a broad action effect on the brain, the new drug specifically targets GABA receptors found in the hippocampus — a region of the brain that plays a key role in memory and how knowledge is obtained.
When a single dose of these new molecules was administered in an animal model with stressed-induced memory loss, memory performance returned to baseline levels within 30 minutes. In another experiment involving old mice, the drug rapidly reversed memory decline, reaching levels comparable to young mice. These improvements lasted for over two months of daily treatment, the authors reported in the journal Molecular Neuropsychiatry.
“The aged cells regrew to appear the same as young brain cells, showing that our novel molecules can modify the brain in addition to improving symptoms,” says Dr. Sibille. “We’ve shown that our molecules enter the brain, are safe, activate the target cells and reverse the cognitive deficit of memory loss.”
Researchers expect clinical trials to start in two years. If the effects can be translated into humans, the implications could be huge. Cognitive deficits are a staple of aging and psychiatric diseases, so millions of people could significantly improve their life. What’s more, there’s reason to believe that this treatment might also prevent memory loss associated with the early Alzheimer’s disease, potentially delaying its onset.