A proof-of-concept study out of Stanford University School of Medicine has all eyes on an asthma drug called formoterol. The drug, which is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat asthma, was shown to increase cognition in mouse models of Down syndrome. Improved cognitive functioning was noted in part of the brain associated with spatial navigation, forming new memories and paying attention.
“Almost every person with Down syndrome after the age of 40 will show pathology similar to Alzheimer’s disease,” said senior study author Dr. Ahmad Salehi, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. “A large proportion of these individuals will develop dementia. We hope that developing this type of research could potentially delay this.”
Salehi and his team found that contextual learning was also strengthened by formoterol. This is the process by which the brain integrates both spatial and sensory input to memorize the details of a complicated environment. Researchers say we use this type of learning when we utilize our senses to recall the location of a store, for example. Contextual learning is inherently weakened in those with Down syndrome due in part to the brain’s inadequate supply of norepinephrine. The study focused primarily on using formoterol to target a group of beta-2 receptors that respond to norepinephrine.
This approach doesn’t come without risks. According to Salehi, norepinephrine affects several systems in the body, so tinkering with these levels could potentially increase blood pressure and heart rate. Since most people with Down syndrome are already vulnerable to cardiovascular abnormalities, more research must be done to explore the drug’s safety in humans.
“What we have to do now is make sure we find the right dose of this drug,” said Salehi, who says the next step is to fine-tune the dosage. “Right now, the dose we use is far more than what’s allowed in humans.”
Roughly 400,000 people in the United States are affected by Down syndrome. Salehi says the optimal situation would be to eventually repurpose an existing drug in order to improve cognitive functioning for these individuals.
“The hope is to develop new therapies to fundamentally improve cognition,” he said.
By Marianne Hayes