For decades, scientists have struggled to find a concrete way to deal with neurodegenerative brain diseases, such as dementia. Now, two drugs just might be able to do the job.
In 2013, a team from the UK Medical Research Council made history when they stopped brain cells in an animal from dying – a first ever for science, the BBC reports. However, the compound they created was not suitable for human use, as its side effects included organ damage.
These new drugs have the same protective effect on the brain, and are already proven to be safe for use in people. Professor Giovanna Mallucci, from the MRC Toxicology Unit in Leicester, says, “It’s really exciting.”
This approach focuses on utilizing the natural defense mechanisms brain cells already possess. When a virus attacks a brain cell, it results in a build-up of viral proteins, and cells shut down protein production to prevent the virus from spreading.
Many of the known neurodegenerative diseases are a result of brain cells producing defective proteins that trigger the cells’ defense mechanisms, but with disastrous consequences. The brain cells shut down for so long that they eventually die. When this process is repeated in the brain’s neurons, it can destroy memory, movement, or become fatal.
Preventing this process safely could then lead to a treatment of a wide number of neurodegenerative diseases.
The researchers that conducted the initial study have since tested over a thousand existing drugs on human cells in a dish, mice, and nematode worms. Two of the drugs, trazodone and DBM, prevented a form of dementia and prion disease by keeping brain cells from dying.
Trazodone is prescribed for depression, while DBM is being tested in cancer patients.
Mallucci says, “It’s time for clinical trials to see if there’s similar effects in people and put our money where our mouth is. We’re very unlikely to cure them completely, but if you arrest the progression you change Alzheimer’s disease into something completely different so it becomes liveable with.”
The study was published in the journal Brain.