A new drug approach helped restore the memory of elderly patients who are at high risk for dementia due to Alzheimer's, and may potentially delay the onset of this debilitating disease, according to new research.

The drug, called atypical antiepileptic levetiracetam, is usually used to treat epilepsy; however, researchers at Johns Hopkins University believe that it can also treat early Alzheimer's. Up to 5.3 million Americans currently have Alzheimer's disease, but by 2050 this number is expected to more than double due to the aging of the population. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and typically occurs in individuals who are 60 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So, finding some sort or cure or preventative treatment is critical.

Researchers chose to focus on amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), a clinically recognized condition in which memory impairment is greater than expected for a person's age and which greatly increases risk for Alzheimer's dementia. It is characterized by over-activity of the hippocampus in the brain - a phenomenon that leads to further cognitive decline and progression to Alzheimer's dementia, researchers say.

"What we've shown is that very low doses of the atypical antiepileptic levetiracetam reduces this over-activity," neuroscientist Michela Gallagher, the study's lead author, said in a statement. "At the same time, it improves memory performance on a task that depends on the hippocampus."

Gallagher and her colleagues hope that the new drug approach will be tested in a large-scale, longer-term clinical trial.

But during this study, the team conducted a double-blind, randomized trial involving 84 patients (all over age 55), of which 17 were normal healthy participants whereas the rest had symptoms of aMCI. All aMCI participants received a different dose of levetiracetam.

Low doses of the drug (62.5mg and 125mg twice daily) improved memory performance and normalized the hippocampal hyperactivity detected by functional MRI, which measures brain activity during a memory task. Higher dosing (250mg twice daily), on the other hand, did not show significant benefit on task performance or functional MRI activation.

Results from this study support the team's initial conclusions on animal models which were published three years ago in the journal Neuron.

"What we want to discover now, is whether treatment over a longer time will prevent further cognitive decline and delay or stop progression to Alzheimer's dementia," Gallagher added.

These latest results were published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical.

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