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Study: Drug Slows Alzheimer’s Memory Loss

April 3, 2003

Harriette Bayse was amazed by her former husband’s improvement when he took part in a random test for a drug for Alzheimer’s disease. He was smiling, talkative and he recalled nicknames.

``He was just really like his old self,″ she said.

At the end of the six-month test, they found out that William A. Bayse, 65, had been taking the drug memantine in one of two U.S. studies of the medication in patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s.

The drug is now under government review, and if approved, would be the first treatment available for later stages of the mind-robbing ailment.

There is no cure or known prevention for Alzheimer’s, which affects about 4 million Americans, and the only medications are approved for earlier stages of the disease.

In one of the studies, reported in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine, memantine used alone appeared to slow down memory loss and physical decline in advanced Alzheimer’s patients.

Bayse took part in a study that combined memantine with one of the drugs approved for milder stages. The results suggest the combination actually improves memory and thinking skills.

``For families and patients with this illness, anything that’s going to help means a tremendous amount,″ said researcher Dr. Martin R. Farlow of Indiana University School of Medicine. The study was being presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.

Harriette Bayse said her former husband, who lives at a retirement community in Mount Pleasant, S.C., continued taking memantine after the study ended last year. Although he’s since declined because of recent seizures unrelated to the drug, she is grateful for the months he was better.

``For my kids to be able to have the summer with him, Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was such a blessing,″ Bayse said.

Memantine was approved as a treatment for advanced Alzheimer’s last year in Europe, where it has been available in Germany for two decades to treat dementia. Alzheimer’s is a common form of dementia.

The studies were funded by the German drug maker Merz Pharmaceuticals or Forest Laboratories Inc., which has U.S. marketing rights.

Memantine blocks excess amounts of a brain chemical, glutamate, which can lead to nerve cell damage. The most commonly used Alzheimer’s drugs _ Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl _ prevent the breakdown of a different brain chemical.

Doctors usually keep Alzheimer’s patients on those drugs as they move into later stages of the disease because they are thought to do some good, said Bill Thies, medical-science director of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Memantine would give them a welcome option, he said.

``It does open the possibility that you can use the two together in a way that actually adds up to even greater benefit,″ Thies said.

The 252 patients in one study were given either memantine or a dummy pill for six months. A series of tests measured their mental and physical abilities.

Both groups saw declines, but the group taking memantine declined by about half as much, said Dr. Barry Reisberg of New York University School of Medicine, who led the study. The findings also showed the burden on caregivers was reduced in the memantine group.

``It’s a breath of fresh air for caregivers and for patients,″ he said.

In the combination study, the 403 patients were already taking one of the Alzheimer’s drugs, Aricept. They were given either memantine or a dummy pill for six months. The patients who got memantine showed a significant improvement in their memory and thinking, Farlow said.

``The best of all worlds is if you can treat an illness with one medication, but often the real world is you find drugs that work in different ways and you are able to gain additional benefits in patients,″ said Farlow. ``And I think that’s what this study says.″


On the Net:

New England Journal: http://www.nejm.org

Alzheimer’s Association: http://www.alzheimers.org

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