Diabetes Drug Stimulates New Brain Cell Growth, Could Aid Alzheimer's Patients

By Chelsea Whyte on July 6, 2012 4:35 PM EDT

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New research reveals that a common diabetes drug stimulates new brain cell growth in mice. (Photo: Creative Commons: melloveschal)

The unintended side effects of drugs can sometimes turn out to help the body. That's the case with a common diabetes drug called metformin, which has been shown to stimulate the growth of new brain cells in mice in a new Canadian study.

The finding could lead to new Alzheimer's therapies that may try to repair the brain by spurring brain cells into action instead of introducing new stem cells, the researchers said.

The study showed that brain cells start to multiply when the drug was introduced into both living mice and human brain cell cultures in the lab. In the mice, exposure to metformin not only increased their brains' production of new neurons, but the mice were also better at learning to find hidden platforms in a standard maze that tests spatial learning.

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Known to be a safe drug with few side effects for diabetes patients, metformin is traditionally used to affect the metabolism by stimulating a pathway known as aPKC-CBP in the liver.

"We put two and two together," said study leader Freda Miller, according to Medical Xpress. If metformin activates the CBP pathway in the liver, they thought, maybe it could also do that in neural stem cells of the brain to encourage brain repair.

It remains to be seen whether the effects will be the same in the living human brain, but previous research suggests the drug could be the key to cognitive improvement for those suffering from neural disorders.

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, reports Fox News.  At the time, it was thought that the those improvements were a result of treating the patients' diabetes, but the new study suggests the change in brain function was due to the drug itself, the researchers said.

Miller says they now hope to test whether metformin might help repair the brains of those who have suffered brain injury due to trauma or radiation therapies for cancer.

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