Epilepsy drug may treat early Alzheimer’s

"What we want to discover now is whether treatment over a longer time will prevent further cognitive decline and delay or stop progression to Alzheimer's dementia," says Michela Gallagher. (Credit: Andy Melton/Flickr)

A drug used to treat epilepsy also reverses minor memory problems that can foreshadow Alzheimer’s disease, a small study shows.

When patients with aMCI, a precursor to Alzheimer’s dementia, took very low doses of the drug levetiracetam researchers saw an improvement in their performance on a memory task “that depends on the hippocampus,” a brain area critical to memory, says Michela Gallagher, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University.

More study is needed. “What we want to discover now is whether treatment over a longer time will prevent further cognitive decline and delay or stop progression to Alzheimer’s dementia,” Gallagher says.

Alzheimer’s risk

Levetiracetam is an anticonvulsant already used to combat some types of seizures in epilepsy patients, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Published in NeuroImage: Clinical, the new study finds that it also calms hyperactivity in the brains of patients with aMCI, also known as amnestic mild cognitive impairment.

The condition is a noticeable memory problem, one that is greater than expected for a person’s age. Though it is not severe enough to interfere significantly with day-to-day living, it greatly increases risk for Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia down the road, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The findings validate an earlier study published three years ago and also closely match the results of animal studies performed at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere. Next, researchers hope the therapy will be tested in a large-scale, longer-term clinical trial.


Hippocampal over-activity is well-documented in patients with aMCI. It may lead to further cognitive decline and progression to Alzheimer’s dementia, though not every patient develops a serious condition and some eventually recover.

For the new study, researchers studied 84 subjects; 17 of them were normal healthy participants and the rest had the symptoms of pre-dementia memory loss defined as aMCI. Each was over 55; the average age was about 70.

Subjects were given varying doses of the drug and also a placebo in a double-blind randomized trial. Low doses both improved memory performance and normalized the over-activity detected by functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Gallagher is a professor of psychological and brain sciences and neuroscience in the university’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. She is the founder and a member of the scientific board of AgeneBio, a biotechnology company. Gallagher owns AgeneBio stock, subject to restrictions under Johns Hopkins policy, and is entitled to a share in any royalties received by the university on the sale of products derived from her research. The terms of these arrangements are managed by the university in accordance with its conflict-of-interest policies.

Source: Johns Hopkins University