Diabetes Drug Reverses Alzheimer's Symptoms in Mice; Reduces Brain Plaque Buildup and Improves Memory

This diabetes drug could have a very advantageous second use. ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images

Updated |Promising new animal research suggests a drug originally developed to treat diabetes significantly reverses memory loss and brain degeneration in mice with a rodent version of Alzheimer's disease. If the same is proven true in humans, the drug could one day be used as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease and other memory-related illnesses.

In the study, published online this week in Brain Research, scientists from Lancaster University in England used lab mice to test how effective a diabetes drug known as a triple receptor was in treating Alzheimer's disease. The mice in the study were specifically created to express certain genes associated with Alzheimer's disease in humans. The researchers waited for the mice to age before giving them the drug, therefore giving their disease some time to develop and damage the animal's brain. Once given the drug, the animals were then made to conduct a maze test designed to measure their memory.

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Results revealed that after being given the drug, aged mice who already had signs of a rodent version of Alzheimer's disease showed improved learning and memory skills. The results were also seen on a biological level, and these mice displayed reduced amounts of plaque buildup in the brain, a major hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. In addition, these mice also had reduced levels of chronic inflammation in their brains, overall slower rates of brain nerve cell loss and increased brain nerve cell protection.

The results suggest that the diabetes drug has a "clear promise of being developed into a new treatment for chronic neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease," lead study researcher Christian Holscher of Lancaster University said in a statement on Sunday. This is especially exciting, as it has been 15 years since a new Alzheimer's drug has hit the market.

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The drug is called a triple receptor drug and according to the study, combines GLP-1, GIP and Glucagon, three biological molecules known as "growth factors." Growth factors are simply natural substances, usually a hormone or steroid, that help to induce growth. The growth factors in this drug specifically affected growth in the animals' brains, and this is significant as the brains of Alzheimer's patients are shown to display growth impairment, a statement on the study reported. This impairment causes brain nerve cells to slowly lose function, eventually leading to some of the hallmark symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

However, in the mice in the study, the diabetes drug prevented and even reversed this brain growth impairment.

The link between diabetes and Alzheimer's is not as strange as you may think. Insulin, the hormone that diabetes patients have trouble regulating, is actually a type of growth factor. This is why a triple receptor drug was originally designed to treat diabetes. In addition, diabetes patients are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, the Alzheimer's Association reported.

Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and currently more than 5 million Americans are living with this disease, The Alzheimer's Association reported. However, this figure is expected to grow as the aging population increase, and by 2050 there could be as many as 16 million Americans living with Alzheimer's disease.

Updated: This article has been updated to include more information on Alzheimer's disease.