A CHEAP blood pressure pill taken by millions could be used to combat Alzheimer’s disease, scientists claim.
A new study into hypertension drug nilvadipine found it can boost blood flow to the part of the brain that controls memory by 20 per cent.
It works by widening the arteries and stopping calcium from getting in – without affecting other parts of the brain.
Although in its early stages the research, published in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension, suggests that nilvadipine could reverse the signs of Alzheimer’s in some regions.
But it’s unclear whether this would lead to fewer dementia symptoms, which treatments so far have been unable to cure.
Professor Jurgen Claassen, of Radboud University Medical Centre in Holland, who led the study, said: “This high blood pressure treatment holds promise as it doesn’t appear to decrease blood flow to the brain, which could cause more harm than benefit.
“Even though no medical treatment is without risk, getting treatment for high blood pressure could be important to maintain brain health in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.”
How was the study conducted?
Prof Claassen’s team recruited 44 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s, half of whom received nilvadipine for six months and the others a placebo.
Neither the researchers nor the participants, who had an average age of 73, knew who were taking the blood pressure pills, which cost a few pence each.
At the outset, both groups underwent a unique MRI scan that measured blood flow to specific areas of grey matter.
When this was repeated at the end, nilvadipine had increased blood flow to the hippocampus, the area of the brain which controls learning and memory, by 20 per cent compared to the dummy drug.
Importantly, blood flow to other parts of the brain was unaffected in any of the participants.
The group were among a wider study of 500 Alzheimer’s patients who were given nilvadipine between 2013 and 2015.
In that larger project, effects on cerebral blood flow were not measured and overall, no “clinical benefit” was noted.
But a subgroup of patients with only mild symptoms of disease did experience a sense of a slower decline in memory.
Previous studies have hinted that high blood pressure treatment could reduce the risk of developing dementia.
What is Alzheimer’s disease and what are the symptoms?
Dementia is the name for a set of symptoms that includes memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. It develops when the brain is damaged by diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.
The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells that connect to each other. In Alzheimer’s disease, connections between these cells are lost. This is because proteins build up and form abnormal structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’. Eventually nerve cells die and brain tissue is lost.
The brain also contains important chemicals that help to send signals between cells. People with Alzheimer’s have less of some of these ‘chemical messengers’ in their brain, so the signals are not passed on as well.
There are some drug treatments for Alzheimer’s disease that can help boost the levels of some chemical messengers in the brain. This can help with some of the symptoms.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. This means that gradually, over time, more parts of the brain are damaged. As this happens, more symptoms develop, and they also get worse.
There are some common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but it is important to remember that everyone is unique. Two people with Alzheimer’s are unlikely to experience the condition in exactly the same way.
For most people with Alzheimer’s, the earliest symptoms are memory lapses. In particular, they may have difficulty recalling recent events and learning new information. These symptoms occur because the early damage in Alzheimer’s is usually to a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which has a central role in day-to-day memory. Memory for life events that happened a long time ago is often unaffected in the early stages of the disease.
The researchers believe that beneficial effects on brain blood flow could explain part of this effect.
Prof Claassen added: “In the future, we need to find out whether the improvement in blood flow, especially in the hippocampus, can be used as a supportive treatment to slow down progression of Alzheimer’s disease, especially in earlier stages of disease.”
The risk of Alzheimer’s – the most common form of dementia – increases with age and the causes are largely unknown.
Previous research has shown that blood flow to the brain declines in early Alzheimer’s disease.
A British trial is already underway into whether another blood pressure lowering drug called losartan, which first became available in 1995, can slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Experts will use brain imaging to measure whether losartan slashes the rate of brain shrinkage that normally occurs in the disease.
Standard questionnaires on memory performance and quality of life will also indicate whether the drug could be a useful treatment.
Again nobody, including the doctors or nurses involved, will know until the study is analysed who receives which.
There are now 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK – 500,000 of whom have Alzheimer’s, the most common form. The figure is forecast to rise to two million by 2050.
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