Prescription drug methotrexate linked with reduced dementia risk in arthritis patients

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By Ed Pinches | Wednesday 24 March 2021

Today (Wednesday 24 March) Dr Danielle Newby at the University of Oxford will present findings that the anti-inflammatory drug, methotrexate, reduces dementia risk by 29% in people with rheumatoid arthritis. The work is being presented at Alzheimer’s Research UK’s 20th Annual Research Conference.

The charity is welcoming over 500 dementia researchers to its annual Research Conference this week. The event, the largest meeting of UK dementia researchers, is taking place virtually and features sessions dedicated to sharing the latest developments in the understanding of dementia and progress towards treatments, diagnosis and risk reduction.

Dementia is caused by brain diseases, the most common being Alzheimer’s. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a catastrophic impact on people with dementia, a condition that already affects nearly one million people in the UK.

With no current treatments available that slow down or halt these diseases, the need for dementia research into dementia prevention has never been greater.

At the Conference, the UK’s largest gathering of dementia researchers, Dr Newby will present her work showing the prescription drug methotrexate, but not a similar drug called sulfasalazine, reduced dementia cases by 29% in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Using electronic health records from large existing studies of people in the UK, Spain, Denmark & Holland, Dr Newby team looked at volunteers over the age of 50, diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. They compared 486 volunteers with dementia against 641 without.

The researchers then used a statistical approach to mitigate for any potential factors, which would skew the results to work out the risk of dementia.

Taking methotrexate for longer than 4 years was linked to the lowest risk of dementia.

Dr Danielle Newby, from University of Oxford said:
“Our research exploring the use of the anti-inflammatory drug, methotrexate, in real world data sets finds 29% fewer dementia cases in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Our work highlights the benefit of using existing information to identify drugs already on the market that may potentially be used to prevent dementia cases.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough for researchers like me and while it’s a highlight to present at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Virtual Conference, I hope that future research like mine will be supported by investment in the field, as without it we risk losing momentum in our search for treatments.”

Dr Newby also presents early-stage findings looking at those taking drugs designed at lowering blood pressure and those receiving treatments for type 2 diabetes. To do this she analysed existing data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and records from the UK Biobank.

Dr Newby said:
“Our preliminary work suggests that other prescription drugs may also have benefits for the brain, and this ties in with the latest research showing that there are things within our power to change to influence our risk of dementia. In my future work I hope to be able to look at interventions like these in combination, to explore new ways at looking at dementia risk reduction.”

What did our expert say?

 Dr Susan Kohlhaas, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Methotrexate is a prescription drug and should only be used when prescribed by a doctor or qualified healthcare professional. As methotrexate is already a licensed anti-inflammatory prescribed to people with arthritis, and information already exists about its safety, understanding its potential benefit for brain health could help reduce dementia risk for many people.

“While we’re on the brink of the first disease-modifying treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s, with nearly one million people living with dementia we owe it to them to explore all possible approaches to prevent the condition in the first place. Research like this can give us vital clues about the mechanisms underlying dementia and may pave the way for preventative treatments in the future.

“The past 12 months have been incredibly challenging for dementia research. Work in labs has been paused or scaled back at points during the pandemic and research conferences have had to drastically change. Conferences are a critical but often overlooked part of science and I’m delighted that we have been able to arrange this virtual event and provide an opportunity for researchers to forge collaborations, exchange new ideas with their colleagues and hear about exciting new developments from research like this.

“Funding pioneering research is the only way to bring about a world free of the heartbreak and harm of dementia, but innovative research must be supported with significant and sustained investment across government, charity and industry if we’re to make progress towards breakthroughs.”

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Ed Pinches