Monday, February 26, 2007

Reversing the cognitive dysfunction of Down's Syndrome

Yesterday I wrote about an experiment that reversed an artificially induced autism-like syndrome in mice and mentioned an old science fiction story - Flowers for Algernon. Today I'm stunned by another, similar, story (emphases mine)
Drug May Counteract Down Syndrome: Scientific American

Researchers may have finally found a drug candidate for reducing the mental retardation caused by Down syndrome, which afflicts more than 350,000 people in the U.S. Researchers gave low doses of a human drug to mice bred to mimic the learning and memory problems in people with Down syndrome. After as little as two weeks, the impaired mice performed as well as normal ones in learning tests, and the improvement lasted for up to two months after treatment ended.

But there is a catch: the drug was taken off the market 25 years ago after being found to cause dangerous seizures in some people. And many compounds that boost learning in mice fail in human trials.

... Researchers tested the drug, pentylenetetrazole (PTZ), as well as two other compounds—picrotoxin and a gingko biloba extract called bilobalide—because they all interfere with tiny ion channels on brain cells (neurons). When activated, the channels, known as GABAA receptors, inhibit the cells, making it harder for them to form new synapses, or connections, with neighboring neurons.

The deficits of Down syndrome may occur because the brain contains too many such inhibitory signals, says Stanford University neurobiologist Craig Garner, whose group performed the experiments. "In order to learn, you have to have a period during which synapses can get stronger or weaker," he says. "This changing is what's not possible when you have too much inhibition."

So Garner, his student Fabian Fernandez, and their colleagues gave their mice either low doses of PTZ mixed with milk, or low-dose injections of picrotoxin or bilobalide, daily for two to four weeks to slightly raise the level of excitation in the brain. Immediately after treatment, the animals' scores on two memory tests—for recognizing objects they had seen before or remembering how they last entered a maze—were on par with normal mice; two months later, they still did much better than they normally would, the researchers report in a paper appearing online February 25 in Nature Neuroscience.

The treatment "is allowing the normal properties of neurons to work," Garner says. "This slowly over time leads to an improved circuit."

Reeves says there may be other ways to treat Down syndrome, but "you can see your way to clinical testing most easily from here," because researchers identified specific chemicals. "It's hugely promising," he says. "Maybe it will have a big effect, but we don't know that." The inhibition model is plausible, but still unproved in people, he notes, and until researchers better understand the mechanisms by which the compounds work, "I'm wary of rushing into the clinic."

Garner says clinical trials of PTZ could begin in the next year or two, and evaluating them might take five to 10 years. He notes that although PTZ is nearly 100 years old and was used to treat psychiatric disorders and later dementia, researchers never concluded it was effective. It also caused seizures (at doses 100-fold higher than those given to the mice), so the FDA revoked its approval in 1982.

In Down syndrome, chromosome 21 is present in three copies instead of two. Similarly, the mice used in the study have a duplicated piece of chromosome 16. As in Down syndrome, these animals have malformed facial bones and problems forming new memories...
This is so stunning we must consider the possibility of fraud, but Nature Neuroscience must have been extra cautious given these results.

I would expect this not to work in humans, or to have very nasty side-effects with longterm use, but the game has most definitely changed.

1 comment:

Ali said...

Hi. Some parents I am on a list with have been using a protocol that involves sm. doses of prozac and gingko biloba and some other things. Apparently they are seeing great results with their kids with Down Syndrome. To me... I guess you could call it "enlightenment" but I would just call it common sense and knowledge. The Bible says that a lack of knowledge causes much suffering. God wants us to know Him. He also wants us to know His Word. Let's also take a look at His creation. I find it so fascinating that there are so many leaves, mushrooms, roots etc. that provide so much healing. Wow. Thanks God! :) For my child with Down Syndrome... we love his socks off and we do use supplements. And... we are finding that they help him cognitively. This isn't a mystery or something to be afraid of. It's just common sense. The genetic defect causes him to need extra anti-oxidants and other support. I hope all people will embrace the idea of people with Down's improving. :) Ali - Christian mom to three