Researchers are turning to diabetes treatments to find potential Alzheimer’s breakthroughs

  • Treatments used for diabetes could be key to understanding and treating Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions related to ageing.
  • New research in mice suggests that a drug that goes after diabetes targets could have an impact on the trajectory of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Next, the same conclusions will need to be seen in humans.

The search for new treatments for Alzheimer’s has been unsuccessful for the past 15 years.

After many setbacks, researchers have been trying different approaches to treating the neurodegenerative disease, such as starting treatment earlier and finding new ways to target the brain. Alzheimer’s affects more than 5 million Americans, a number that’s expected to balloon to 16 million by 2050.

One unexpected treatment route is showing some initial promise: Using medication originally designed to treat diabetes.

In a new study based on mice, scientists at Lancaster University found that a drug that goes after three diabetes-related targets “significantly reversed the memory deficit” in mice who got the drug, as measured by their performance in a maze test when compared to mice who didn’t get the drug. The experimental drug targets hormones that are key in regulating the body’s blood-sugar levels: GLP-1, GIP, and glucagon.

In the past, researchers have looked into how one component of the experimental drug – GLP-1 receptor agonists – affects people with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. GLP-1 drugs are used to better control blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes, and are better known by the brand names: Victoza, Byetta, and Bydureon.

For example, a small study of 38 patients with Alzheimer’s from 2016 looked at the effects of Victoza. The study group that took a placebo had a decrease in glucose metabolism in the brain. But in the group that received that medication, there wasn’t a decrease.

The results are still early, however, and it remains to be seen how the treatment works in humans. While some evidence has suggested a link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s in recent years, there’s still a lot we don’t know about what causes Alzheimer’s, let alone how the two conditions are connected. Still, some doctors are optimistic about the potential to use drugs typically prescribed to treat diabetes for patients with Alzheimer’s.

“With no new treatments in nearly 15 years, we need to find new ways of tackling Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Doug Brown, the director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society said in a news release. “It’s imperative that we explore whether drugs developed to treat other conditions can benefit people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.”