The NSAID could be a potential treatment for Alzheimer's in the future, researchers say.
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A common anti-inflammatory drug prescribed for period pain may play a key role in treating Alzheimer’s disease, according to researchers from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. In a new study, the medication completely reversed memory loss in mice that had developed Alzheimer’s-like symptoms.

Clinical trials in humans are needed before the drug can be considered as an Alzheimer’s remedy. But the findings do suggest that the drug may have an effect on brain chemistry that hasn’t been documented previously.

The drug, mefenamic acid, is in a class of medications called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Like other NSAIDS—such as ibuprofen and aspirin—mefenamic acid can relieve pain by reducing swelling and inflammation in the body. It’s available by prescription as a generic or under the brand name Ponstel, and is frequently used to treat painful, heavy menstrual periods.

But researchers suspected it might also reduce inflammation in the brain that could be related to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. So they gave the drug to 10 mice that had been genetically modified to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. A second group of genetically modified mice got a placebo drug, instead.

After one month, the difference was clear: Memory loss in the group that had been given mefenamic acid had been reversed back to levels seen in normal, healthy mice. In the placebo group, it remained unchanged.

The study authors believe the drug targeted an inflammatory pathway in the brain, called the NLRP3 inflammasome, which damages brain cells and contributes to dementia. This pathway has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease in the past, but until now no studies had shown how a drug’s effect on it might also affect memory.

"There is experimental evidence now to strongly suggest that inflammation in the brain makes Alzheimer's disease worse,” lead author David Bough, PhD, said in a press release. "Until now, no drug has been available to target this pathway, so we are very excited by this result.”

The fact that mefenamic acid is already on the market and widely used is also exciting, he added. Unlike a brand new drug—which can take years of testing and approvals to become available to consumers—this treatment could be recommended to patients in the relatively near future.

Testing drugs already in use for other conditions is a research priority for the U.K.’s Alzheimer’s Society, which funded the study. “It could allow us to shortcut the 15 years or so needed to develop a new dementia drug from scratch,” said Doug Brown, PhD, the society’s director of research and development, in the press release.

Brown also said that Bough’s study is promising—but stressed that doctors shouldn’t be prescribing these drugs yet. Results in animal studies can’t always be replicated in humans; and these drugs, while generally safe, do carry the potential for side effects.

Bough agrees. “Much more work needs to be done until we can say with certainty that it will tackle the disease in humans,” he said. The good news? He and his colleagues are already on it, preparing for clinical trials to determine the drug’s effectiveness on people.