Experts have long suspected that an inflammation in the neurological pathways of the brain contributes to the onset of dementia in the early stages of alzheimer's disease.
Now UCSF researcher Susanna Rosi believes a common Alzheimer's drug delivered early enough may slow that process down.
"We want to rescue neurons while they're still there and still working compared to late stages of the disease," said Rosi, PhD.
Testing memory function in rodents is often determined using a water maze, demonstrated by researchers at the buck institute for aging in Marin County.
In a similar test, Dr. Rosi's lab animals forgot how to complete the maze after being given a compound to induce brain inflammation, similar to what Alzheimer's patients experience.
But when she gave those same animals the drug Memantine, the decline reversed.
"I give them Memantine daily, so what happened is even with the compound to develop inflammation, the animal is able to find the platform and remembers," said Susanna Rosi, PhD.
To further document the improvement, Rosi's team tracked the presence of cells believed to trigger the neuro-inflammation. Those cells, represented by the red dots, decreased in number after the Memantine was introduced.
Next, they tracked proteins associated with the brain's ability to form and recall a memory of the test maze. Those also returned to normal levels.
"And so what this tell us, is that Memantine is able to restore the proper neuronal functioning, so neurons can now recognize between the same environment," said Rosi.
She believes introducing the drug at the earliest signs of cognitive impairment, before the neurons themselves begin to deteriorate, could potentially delay the onset of dementia, perhaps by several years.
If the findings are confirmed in human trials, Rosi's team believes the drug could also be used to treat other types of dementia, including symptoms from HIV.