Cancer Drug Has Potential to Treat Patients with Dementia, Alzheimer's Disease

HDAC inhibitors stop the activation of genes that turn normal cells into cancerous cells.

HDAC inhibitors stop the activation of genes that turn normal cells into cancerous cells.

What if a drug could make it easier to learn a language, make memories more vivid, and help patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by rewiring the brain and keeping neurons alive?

Scientists at Rutgers University have observed such side effects from the drug RGFP966 in lab rats. The drug made them more attuned to what they were hearing, as well as making them able to retain more information and remember things more clearly.

“Memory-making in neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease is often poor or absent altogether once a person is in the advanced stages of the disease,” said Kasia M. Bieszczad, lead author and assistant professor in Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology. “This drug could rescue the ability to make new memories that are rich in detail and content, even in the worst case scenarios.”

In patients with conditions such as Alzheimer’s, brain cells shrink and die because the synapses that transfer information from one neuron to another are no longer strong and stable. There is no current treatment option that offers a reversal to this situation.

The drug currently being tested in lab rats is among a class of drugs called HDAC inhibitors, which are currently being used in cancer therapies to stop the activation of genes that turn normal cells into cancerous ones.

The effect the drug has on the brain is that neurons become more plastic, or better able to make connections and create positive changes that enhance memory.

Researchers found in the lab rats that when they were taught to listen to a specific sound in order to receive a reward and were given the drug after training, they were better able to remember what they learned and respond correctly to the tone at a greater rate than rats that did not receive the drug.

Scientists also found that the rodents were more “tuned in” to the relevant acoustic signals they heard during their training — an important finding because setting up the brain to better process and store significant sounds is critical to human speech and language, according to Bieszczad.

“People learning to speak again after a disease or injury, as well as those undergoing cochlear implantation to reverse previous deafness, may be helped by this type of therapeutic treatment in the future,” Bieszczad said. “The application could even extend to people with delayed language learning abilities or people trying to learn a second language.”

This extreme sensitivity to auditory information allowed the neurons to reorganize and create new pathways, leading the information absorbed to turn into long-term memories, according to Bieszczad.

Further research must be done to confirm the findings in human trials.

“People normally remember an experience with limited detail — not everything we see, hear and feel is remembered,” she said. “What has happened here is that memory becomes closer to a snapshot of the actual experience instead of being sparse, limited or inaccurate.”