Antidepressant May Fight Alzheimer's Disease

An experimental antidepressant drug (search) called rolipram may offset some effects of Alzheimer’s disease (search).

Rolipram has shown promise in improving memory in animal tests. That’s why Bing Gong of Columbia University and colleagues decided to test it on mice with Alzheimer’s-like conditions.

Thanks to their genes, the mice had high brain levels of an abnormal protein called beta-amyloid. Beta-amyloid (search) plays a major role in Alzheimer’s disease. It’s part of the plaque found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

In Gong’s experiment, the mice got daily rolipram injections for three weeks. Improvements were seen in the ability of the mice to learn a task and remember what they learned.

The drug didn’t just work in mice with early stages of brain problems. A mouse that already lost ground to the disease also showed improvement.

The drug’s greatest effects were seen in older mice, although younger mice also benefited. Rolipram also delayed the natural progression of Alzheimer’s-like symptoms.

But that’s not all. The most important result, say the researchers, is that rolipram’s effects lasted long after the last injection. After the three-week course of treatment, positive results extended for at least two months.

Rolipram exits the body quickly. But before it vanishes, it appears to interfere with the disease-related genes, say the researchers.

Rolipram isn’t available in the U.S., but it’s already attracting attention for a variety of reasons beyond its antidepressant abilities. It’s used as an antidepressant in Europe and Japan.

In May, researchers reported that rolipram helped boost the inner workings of rat nerve cells. That could eventually lead to treatments for spinal cord injury and paralysis. Rolipram also appears to be able to suppress immune system function.

More studies are needed to see how long the benefits last. Meanwhile, Gong and colleagues say their findings offer a “new and promising” perspective on Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

By Miranda Hitti, teviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Gong, B. Journal of Clinical Investigation, December 2004; vol 114: pp 1624-1634. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Alzheimer’s Disease: Topic Overview.” WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Alzheimer’s Disease: What Happens.” News release, Journal of Clinical Investigation.