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Diabetes drug might have added health perks for the brain

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Diabetes drug promotes brain cell growth.

A popular diabetes drug, metformin, is found to have positive side effects for brain health. Researchers have found the drug used to treat and prevent type 2 diabetes made mice smarter. The finding means metformin just might find a place for treating Alzheimer's disease, aiding stroke recovery and helping repair the brain after patients undergo radiation for cancer, pending more studies.

Metformin promotes growth of neurons in the brain

In a newer study, researchers found metformin – an inexpensive, safe generic diabetes medicine – promotes growth of neurons in the brain that communicate messages to other areas of the brain.

In mouse testing, the drug improved the rodent’s ability to learn the whereabouts of a hidden platform in a maze - a sign of improved spatial cognitive ability.

Freda Miller of the University of Toronto-affiliated Hospital for Sick Children discovered in past studies that a unique pathway known as aPKC-CBP tells neurons when to mature. Other studies showed metformin works in the liver using the same pathway.

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The combined findings led Miller and her team to look at the effect of the diabetes drug on brain cells. Miller explained in a press release, "We put two and two together." The scientists surmised the drug might also help repair brain cells.

Their research finding showed mice taking metformin developed new neurons. The scientists suspect people already taking the drug might be getting a brain boost, but more studies are needed to confirm if that’s true.

The next step is to see if metformin could help repair the brains of patients who have suffered traumatic brain injuries including stroke. The diabetes drug might also be good therapy for people undergoing radiation for cancer and as a safe, inexpensive drug option for Alzheimer's disease treatment.

Wang J, et al "Metformin activates an atypical PKC-CBP pathway to promote neurogenesis and enhance spatial memory formation"
Cell Stem Cell 2012; 11: 23-35.

Image credit: Morguefile