By Susan E. Matthews
The diabetes drug metformin may spur the growth of new brain cells, which could have benefits for Alzheimer's patients, a new Canadian study on mice suggests.
The study showed that metformin caused brain cells to divide, producing new cells.
The diabetes medication was intended to target a specific pathway in liver cells. In the new study, researchers found that the drug activated that same pathway in brain cells, prompting new cell growth, said study researcher Freda Miller, a stem cell biologist and molecular geneticist at the Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute in Toronto.
The new cells that are produced could help to repair the effects of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Miller told MyHealthNewsDaily. The concept that new cell growth could repair the brain is also driving research into neural stem cells, she added.
The research on metformin's effects on the brain is still in early stages, and the findings have yet to be shown in people.
Still, the researchers found that new brain cells grew in both living mice and in human brain cell cultures growing in lab dishes. They are now working to set up clinical trials, Miller said.
The researchers decided to test metformin's effects on brain cells after it was found that the pathway targeted by the drug in liver cells was also operating in brain cells.
A 2008 study found that patients with both diabetes and Alzheimer’s who began taking metformin experienced improvements in their Alzheimer's symptoms after starting on the drug. It was thought that treating the patients' diabetes had effects on the body that helped improve their Alzheimer’s, but the new study suggests the change in brain function was due to the drug itself, the researchers said.
Metformin is currently approved to treat Type 2 diabetes, along with diet and exercise. Studies have suggested the drug has other effects on the body, such as reducing the risk of certain cancers, such as breast cancer or prostate cancer, and regulating metabolism. Experiments with the drug in mice have suggested that it could delay the onset of Huntington's disease, another brain disorder.
In people with diabetes, the drug has been shown to be very safe, with few side effects.
The study, published today (July 5) in the journal Cell Stem Cell, was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Stem Cell Network and from the Three To Be Foundation, a charity that supports research on neurological disorders.
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