Sharpening the Brain's Performance

Jun 10, 2013

Dr. Rosalyn Moran
Credit VTCRI

A study by researchers at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute could one day result in doctors prescribing drugs for Alzheimer’s patients to be taken while they’re performing a specific activity, rather than, say,  just sitting in front of a television set.  The scientists discovered how certain drugs sharpen the brain’s performance.

When you get a prescription, your doctor might advise you not to take it with food or not to drive immediately after taking the medication.  Doctors at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke are looking at how drugs interact with the brain and also the patient’s environment.  Rosalyn Moran led the team of researchers.

“So, all these important things are what the drug companies consider because they’re very basic.  We don’t want to go through the day feeling sick.  But if we can get around that and then refine it with this added benefit of , you may want to take it while you’re out walking and meeting people, for example, at a higher dose where you can get this new rich information coming into sensory regions.”

She says taking medication for Alzheimer’s disease while doing a crossword puzzle, for example, could increase the drug’s effectiveness.

“This is important to know when you’re giving someone a drug when it’s going to be useful and when they may not need to take it at all and you may get some other benefits, to not taking the drug at certain parts of the day, for example, or in certain parts of your daily routine.”

Moran and her colleagues recruited healthy young adults as volunteers and gave them galantamine, a drug commonly prescribed to Alzheimer’s patients.  The volunteers then listened to a series of modulating tones as they spotted when an object on a screen in front of them changed from white to gray.  What the researchers found was areas of the brain not associated with memory, planning, and reasoning provided a gateway to areas deep within the brain that are affected by Alzheimer’s disease.  In other words, the brain helps itself deliver the drug to where it needs to go.  Moran and her colleagues now want to see if other drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases can help strengthen the brain’s connections and if there are areas of the brain that would benefit from deep brain stimulation, something that’s already being used successfully on people suffering from Parkinson’s disease.  But unlike Parkinson’s,

“We haven’t been able to figure out where stimulation could have its effect because we don’t know what the network looks like in an Alzheimer’s diseased brain.”

That’s where the next study comes in. Moran is starting to conduct further research using patients with early onset Alzheimer’s recruited from the Roanoke Valley. 

“People who can still perform tasks and have a good deal of residual cognitive abilities so that we can test them and try and see if there are strategies that we can do to maintain.  And we’ll be testing people while they’re on their medications and also while they’re off their medications to try and look at the effects in the same way we’ve done here.”

She expects this new study will reveal many differences in the brain’s connectivity between people with and without Alzheimer’s.

“But we can really pinpoint where we think the effect of a drug may be most beneficial or where the pathology itself has the most devastating consequences.  When we have this theoretical framework, it really gives us a roadmap into where to look where diseases may be causing the problems.”

The results of the study should be available by the end of the year.