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Antiseizure Drug Levetiracetam Improves Memory in Mild Cognitive Impairment


Each year, up to 15 percent of people who have amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI) go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Now researchers report that the antiseizure drug levetiracetam may improve memory and brain function in adults who have aMCI, opening a possible door to a way to help people before they develop Alzheimer’s.

Levetiracetam can slow excess brain activity

Levetiracetam works by reducing abnormal excitement in the brain and, when combined with other medications, is used to treat specific types of seizures in people who have epilepsy. Amnestic mild cognitive impairment is the best-studied type of MCI and involves problems with memory that are noticeable and testable, but which don’t interfere with daily activities.

The findings of the new study were presented at the International Congress on Alzheimer’s Disease in Paris on July 20. Johns Hopkins University researchers explained that some of the 34 individuals who participated in the study were healthy and others had aMCI.

The participants were enrolled in two treatment phases that lasted two weeks each. All individuals were given a low dose of levetiracetam during one phase and a placebo during the other. At the end of each phase, the subjects participated in memory evaluations and underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMCI) of their brains while performing a memory task.

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The fMCI scans revealed that when subjects with aMCI took the placebo, there was excessive activity in the part of the brain necessary for memory (hippocampus). This activity subsided to the same level as that seen in controls, however, after they completed the levetiracetam portion of the trial. The subjects with aMCI also improved on their memory task to perform just as well as did the controls.

This study also revealed that the excess brain activity seen in patients with aMCI is a negative factor in memory loss and not the brain’s attempt to “make up” for its difficulty in forming new memories. According to the principle investigator and neuroscientists Michela Gallagher, “this excess activity might be like having your foot on the accelerator if you are on the path to Alzheimer’s.”

Currently there are no effective ways to prevent the progression from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease. Previous research has shown that individuals with aMCI and the greatest excess activity in the hippocampus have the most decline in memory and are more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s over the next four to six years.

The findings of this study are important because they provide a possible way to use levetiracetam in the fight against mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s. Gallagher noted that “the next step in this line of research will be to test this idea to see whether reducing excess activity might slow progression to Alzheimer’s for patients with aMCI.”

Johns Hopkins University