US scientists have found the anti-epilepsy drug levetiracetam may improve memory in people with early-stage mild cognitive impairment. The study is published on Thursday 10 May in the journal Neuron.
Researchers at the University of California studied 17 healthy older people and 17 people with early-stage amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI) – a condition that causes mild memory problems, but not to an extent that interferes with everyday life. Some people with the condition go on to develop dementia, usually Alzheimer’s disease.
Previous research has shown that people with early-stage aMCI tend to have more activity in the hippocampus – a part of the brain responsible for memory – than healthy people, although people in the later stages of aMCI and people with Alzheimer’s tend to have reduced activity in this area. The researchers wanted to investigate whether this early increase in brain activity acts as compensation for memory problems caused by the condition, or whether it may in fact contribute to worsening memory problems.
All the participants were given a placebo drug for the first two weeks of the study. After two weeks, they underwent an MRI scan to measure brain activity while taking part in an object recognition task. Four weeks later, the healthy group was again given a placebo for two weeks, while the group with aMCI was given low doses of levetiracetam, a drug that is used to stabilise brain activity and prevent seizures in people with epilepsy. At the end of the study, the participants underwent a second brain scan and completed another object recognition task.
The results of the first brain scan showed that people with aMCI had higher levels of activity in the hippocampus compared to the healthy participants. After treatment with levetiracetam, the participants with aMCI improved their scores on the object recognition task, while their brain activity was reduced to the same levels as the healthy group.
Dr Eric Karran, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Any treatment that could help allay symptoms of memory loss could be a step forward, and the results from this very small study are intriguing. Although the people in this study showed some improvement in one cognitive test, we don’t know what effect levetiracetam might have over a long period of time. We would need to see large-scale, long-term studies to know how useful this treatment might be for people with mild cognitive impairment, and for how long it might be effective.
“Understanding the changes that occur in the brain during mild cognitive impairment could be crucial to our understanding of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. With 820,000 people affected by dementia in the UK, we urgently need new ways to treat and prevent the condition – that means we must invest in research.”