Aricept, a drug used in treating Alzheimer’s disease (search), might improve memory and mental function in some people with multiple sclerosis, according to a new study.

The report, published in the Nov. 9 issue of the journal Neurology, focused on 69 patients with multiple sclerosis who suffered from mild declines in mental function.

Multiple sclerosis (search) is a chronic neurological disease of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Roughly half of all multiple sclerosis patients experience problems with memory and thinking, making problems with mental skills a leading cause of disability from the disease, which currently has no cure.

Multiple sclerosis can also impair muscle control, strength, vision, balance and sensation.

Aricept (search) is used to treat many of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, such as memory loss, confusion, and problems with thinking and reasoning. Aricept is made by Pfizer, a WebMD sponsor.

At the start of the new study researchers from the neurology department of the State University of New York at Stony Brook asked participants with multiple sclerosis-associated memory and mental impairment to perform memory and mental skills tests.

Next, they divided the participants into two groups. One group took Aricept for 24 weeks, starting with 5 milligrams per day and increasing to 10 daily milligrams in the study’s fourth week. The other group took a placebo for 24 weeks.

At 24 weeks, participants were retested.

Aricept patients had greater improvements in memory testing than the placebo group. Memory test scores for the Aricept group improved almost 14 percent from their initial scores. The placebo group improved less than 3 percent on their memory test scores.

In addition, 66 percent of the Aricept group reportedly said their memory had gotten better, compared with only 32 percent of the placebo group.

No serious side effects were seen from Aricept, except for unusual or abnormal dreams, which were reported by 34 percent of the Aricept group and 9 percent of the placebo group.

Larger Aricept Trials Needed

The results are promising but require further study, say the researchers, who included Lauren Krupp, MD.

“Any treatment that would enhance the ability of persons with MS to meet the cognitive challenges of their daily lives would be very helpful,” write Krupp and colleagues, calling for bigger studies.

“Multiple sclerosis patients are typically prescribed numerous medications to treat their disorder, so that before any new symptomatic treatment is added, its efficacy should be well substantiated,” they write.

In a Neurology editorial, P. Murali Doraiswamy, MD, of Duke University Medical Center and Stephen Rao, PhD, of the Medical College of Wisconsin, agree.

Praising Krupp’s study as “a major advance,” they suggest studying topics including length of treatment, long-term risks, and withdrawal effects in future research.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Krupp, L. Neurology, Nov. 9, 2004; vol 63: pp 1579-1585. Doraiswamy, P., Neurology, November 2004; vol 63: pp 1552-1553. WebMD Medical News: “Keeping Life Normal With Alzheimer’s.” News release, American Academy of Neurology.