Neurodegenerative diseases produce the symptoms of dementia by causing cells in the spinal cord and brain to die. Loss of these cells and their functions mean a reduced ability to control movement, make decisions effectively, and recall memories. Neurodegeneration is devastating because there is no simple way to regenerate these kinds of cells.
Neurodegenerative diseases include Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease. In 2015, 46.8 million people around the world suffered from dementia. If current trends continue, by 2030 that number will be 74.7 million, and by 2050 it will reach 131.5 million. In other words, the problem is massive, and it is set to get even bigger.
Now, scientists may have found two drugs that can make all neurodegenerative brain diseases, including dementia, part of humanity’s past.
Dementia can be caused by a natural defense mechanism that brain cells have against against viruses and their proteins: a shutdown response that stops protein protection and keeps the virus from spreading. Many neurodegenerative diseases cause neurons to produce faulty proteins, so that shutdown response is observed in brain cells. However, the diseased brain cells stay in shutdown mode too long, and they starve themselves until they die.
In 2013, researchers found a compound that stopped brain cells in animals from dying by halting the protein shutdown mode, but later discovered that it caused organ damage in people. Now, in their search for other drugs that produce the same effects, they have found two drugs already used by people that have the same protective effect on brain cells. The researchers’ published their results in the journal Brain.
The more widely known drug is trazodone, which is commonly taken for depression. The lesser known drug is dibenzoylmethane, which is being tested in cancer patients. Since trazodone is already know to be safe for human use, if the team is successful in showing it works for this new application, the time it takes to reach the market should be relatively short.
They are hoping to begin clinical trials soon and have confirmation of their theory within two or three years. The study’s lead, Giovanna Mallucci of the UK Medical Research Council, told the BBC that the two drugs have so far been shown to be “very highly protective and prevented memory deficits, paralysis, and dysfunction of brain cells.”
Mallucci commented in the interview that these drugs had the potential to help many people with neurodegenerative diseases. “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 livable,” Mallucci said.