Slowing Brain Activity

Alzheimers risk is higher for people with mild cognitive impairment but reducing brain activity may help

(RxWiki News) Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a loss of thinking skills that increases risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. Areas of the brain are overactive in MCI, and new research shows that lowering the activity may improve memory.

Higher levels of brain activity in the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory, are common in MCI. Using a drug to lower that brain activity led to better memory function for patients with MCI.

"Consult your physician if you notice any memory problems"

MCI is a loss of thinking and memory abilities that is more severe than normal aging and less severe than Alzheimer’s Disease. People with MCI are at risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease as their symptoms progress.

A study authored by Arnold Bakker, a PhD candidate, with senior scientist Michela Gallagher, PhD, at Johns Hopkins University, looked at the brain activity of 17 patients with MCI and 17 healthy patients of the same age. They compared the brain activity of patients who took a placebo pill and patients who took the antiepileptic, levetiracetam, for two weeks. 

At the start of the study, patients with MCI showed more brain activity in the hippocampus compared to healthy patients.  After two weeks of treatment, patients with MCI showed brain activity in the hippocampus that was just like the brain activity of the patients with no cognitive problems.

The researchers imaged the brain during a memory task using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). During the fMRI, the patients who were taking the antiepileptic made less memory errors on the task.

Some scientists have said that the increased brain activity in patients with MCI may be helpful. Dr. Gallagher’s study supports a different view that higher activity is, in part, bad for memory function in patients with MCI.

The authors stated in their abstract, “Contrary to the view that greater hippocampal activation might serve a beneficial function, these results support the view that increased hippocampal activation in MCI is a dysfunctional condition and that targeting excess hippocampal activity has therapeutic potential.”

The study did not look at changes in global clinical function for the patients in the study.  The improvements in memory and brain function seen here may not relate to improved overall function for people with dementia.

This was a small study, so it is not clear if this finding will be true for bigger populations. More research is needed to decide if this drug is safe and effective for people with dementia.

Levetiracetam, also known as Keppra, is known to decrease activity in the hippocampus. It is used as a drug to treat seizure disorders.

The study was published in May 2012 issue of Neuron.  The study was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Gallagher is the founder and a stockholder of Agenebio.

Review Date: 
May 4, 2012