An Alzheimer’s patient may be able to have synaptic connections restored even with plaques and tangles already in his or her brain
The first experimental drug to boost brain synapses lost in Alzheimer’s disease has been developed by researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. The drug, called NitroMemantine, combines two FDA-approved medicines to stop the destructive cascade of changes in the brain that destroys the connections between neurons, leading to memory loss and cognitive decline.
The decade-long study, led by Stuart A. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the Del E. Webb Center for Neuroscience, Aging, and Stem Cell Research, who is also a practicing clinical neurologist, shows that NitroMemantine can restore synapses, representing the connections between nerve cells (neurons) that have been lost during the progression of Alzheimer’s in the brain. The research findings are described in a paper published June 17 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).
The focus on a downstream target to treat Alzheimer’s, rather than on amyloid beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles—approaches which have shown little success—“is very exciting because everyone is now looking for an earlier treatment of the disease,” Lipton said. “These findings actually mean that you might be able to intercede not only early but also a bit later.” And that means that an Alzheimer’s patient may be able to have synaptic connections restored even with plaques and tangles already in his or her brain.
Targeting lost synapses
In their study, conducted in animal models as well as brain cells derived from human stem cells, Lipton and his team mapped the pathway that leads to synaptic damage in Alzheimer’s. They found that amyloid beta peptides, which were once thought to injure synapses directly, actually induce the release of excessive amounts of the neurotransmitter glutamate from brain cells called astrocytes that are located adjacent to the nerve cells.
Normal levels of glutamate promote memory and learning, but excessive levels are harmful. In patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, excessive glutamate activates extrasynaptic receptors, designated eNMDA receptors (NMDA stands for N-methyl-D-aspartate), which get hyperactivated and in turn lead to synaptic loss.
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