(CORDIS) — Scientists at the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom have discovered that a type 2 diabetes drug can potentially be used to help patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Past studies have shown that type 2 diabetes is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s, and researchers believe that impaired insulin signalling in the brain could impair neurons and contribute to triggering the disease. The results were published the journal Brain Research.
Professor Christian Hölscher and colleagues from the Biomedical Sciences Research Institute at Ulster made the discovery after using an experimental drug called (Val8)GLP-1. Their work showed that the drug simulates the activity of GLP-1, a protein identified as helping a body control its response to blood sugar. In this study, the researchers observed that (Val8)GLP-1 enters the brain and triggers no side effects (at the dosage levels they tested), which is contrary to what normally goes on with drugs, as they cannot readily cross from the blood and into the brain.
This drug prompted the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain that consolidates information from short-term memory to long-memory. Their tests showed that blocking the effect of GLP-1 in the brain leads to poor learning and memory tasks, but behaviour is not affected when the drug is used.
‘Here at the Biomedical Sciences Research Institute, we are really interested in the potential of diabetes drugs for protecting brain cells from damage and even promoting new brain cells to grow,’ Professor Hölscher said. ‘This could have huge implications for diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, where brain cells are lost. It is very encouraging that the experimental drug we tested, (Val8)GLP-1, entered the brain and our work suggests that GLP-1 could be a really important target for boosting memory.’
Commenting on the study, Dr Simon Ridley, chief of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: ‘We are pleased to have supported this early stage research, suggesting that this experimental diabetes drug could also promote the growth of new brain cells. While we know losing brain cells is a key feature of Alzheimer’s, there is a long way to go before we would know whether this drug could benefit people with the disease.’
The results obtained in this study will improve our understanding of the factors involved for maintaining healthy neurons, according to Dr Ridley. ‘With over half a million people in the United Kingdom living with the disease, learning more about how to keep our brain cells healthy is of vital importance. Funding for dementia research lags far behind that of other common diseases, but is essential if we are to realise the true potential of research like this,’ he concluded.