Age-related cognitive decline is unfortunately an inevitability. Its severity varies significantly between individuals, depending upon factors such as starting levels of mental agility, maintaining an active mind as we get older and the luck in avoiding a disposition to the development of brain-degenerative conditions and diseases. But wherever we fall on the spectrum as we age, it reality is that our brain’s function will decline from its peak levels of more youthful years.
Age-related cognitive decline is the result of brain cell shrinkage as we age. Not only do the cells themselves die off and become weaker but so do the all-important connections between them. But a new drug being tested by a team at the University of Toronto has offered hope that several years from now it might be possible to reverse that process. Promising laboratory trials on mice have led to a patent being secured this week and findings presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Clinical trials of the compound are now expected to start within two years.
The University of Toronto team, led by Dr Etienne Sibille, believes that a pill form of the compound they have developed could one day be prescribed once a day to the over 55s or anyone else considered to be at risk of future cognitive problems. If clinical trials back-up initial findings, the compound could also reverse cognitive decline in cases where the effects are already having a negative impact such as those suffering from conditions associated with memory impairment such as Alzheimer’s schizophrenia or depression.
The latest biotechnology that the drug is based on allows it to target the specific areas of the brain that store and retrieve memories. It contains a molecule that binds to ‘Gaba receptors’. These receptors inhibit activity in the hippocampus and neocortex regions known to play a key role in the functions of cognition. The molecules used are derivatives of benzodiazepines, a kind of sedative or anti-anxiety medication. Valium is a benzodiazepine but the new drug’s more sophisticated biotech means it works in a much more targeted way.
Testing on mice showed that elderly individuals tasked with solving a maze managed to do so only around 50% of the time before being treated with the compound. That roughly equates to a success rate equal to that based on pure chance. Within half an hour of being given the new drug that success rate rose to match that exhibited by younger mice at between 80% to 90%. After 2-month courses of the treatment the team found that ‘dendrite’ brain connection neurons use to communicate with each other were replenished in older mice. The creatures’ brain cells had regrown to levels that would be expected in much younger animals.
However, the drug, if clinical trials eventually deliver on the initial promise seen in mice in laboratory testing, would not represent a way to super-charge cognitive function. All it does is reverse the age-related degeneration of the brain’s biology. The optimal result of its effects is returning a brain to its pre-degeneration state. It would not improve brain function beyond that so wouldn’t make younger individuals ‘smarter’ than they are.