Researchers in Canada have found the type 2 diabetes drug metformin can trigger the growth of new brain cells in mice and in the dish. The study, which raises the possibility that metformin may have potential as an Alzheimer’s treatment, is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
Led by scientists at the University of Toronto, the study investigated the effects of metformin on adult stem cells – cells that remain in the body after early development and can multiply to repair damage as old cells die. The researchers set out to test whether it was possible to trigger this process in adult stem cells in the brain, known as ‘neural stem cells’.
The researchers first studied neural stem cells in a dish. When metformin was added, the scientists saw a significant increase in the number of new brain cells. Similarly, in mice that were injected with metformin, the scientists found a significant increase in the number of new brain cells compared to mice that were injected with a saline solution. These mice also performed slightly better in a test of their spatial memory.
The scientists suggest their results may indicate that metformin could hold promise as a treatment for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, where the death of nerve cells is a key factor.
Dr Eric Karran, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“This well-conducted piece of research reveals a possible new biological effect for metformin, but work is still needed to determine how relevant the findings may be for Alzheimer’s disease. Previous studies have seen the production of new nerve cells in rodents, however we are still searching for evidence that new nerve cells can be produced successfully in the adult human brain.
“The idea that an existing drug could fight Alzheimer’s disease is very attractive, but some important questions still remain to be answered about how metformin might benefit people with Alzheimer’s. Ultimately, we would need to see the results of clinical trials to tell whether metformin has the potential to combat Alzheimer’s.
“With half a million people affected by Alzheimer’s, we urgently need a treatment that can stop the disease in its tracks – such a treatment can only come through research.”