Neuroimaging and repurposed pain killers: choice weapons against Alzheimer’s disease

Comic by Brian Crane, continued below

By Caitlin Fowler

Despite a century of research, we are still firmly in the dark when it comes to understanding Alzheimer’s disease (AD), a condition that robs us of even the simplest memories, such as our own birthday. But, what if we could easily peek into the diseased brain to shed light on which specific areas we should be targeting with drugs? Neuroimaging provides this unique window into the brain and is allowing Dr. Jamie Near’s group at McGill University to study how a common pain reliever may double as a treatment for AD.

Dr. Near’s researchers use neuroimaging to study the brains of rats that have been genetically engineered to have AD. First, they take pictures of the entire brain using high resolution MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to see if the rat brain shrinks during AD as the cells start to die. Second, during these MRI scans they also “zoom in” on a small part of the brain and measure the concentration of about 20 different molecules using a technique called Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS). The concentration of these molecules tells us whether the brain is healthy, or alternatively, if brain cells are inflamed and dying. These neuroimaging techniques can be performed many times during the lifetime of a rat (or human) without any side effects, and all the rat (or person) has to do is lie in the MRI machine for about half an hour. This means scientists have a relatively simple way of studying how AD affects the brain over time, and therefore, which areas to target with drugs.

One potential drug that could be used for this purpose is likely already in your medicine cabinet; we have all reached for an Aleve to deal with headaches or back pain, but what if it could also treat Alzheimer’s? In addition to studying how the brain changes during AD, Dr. Near’s group is also examining how the diseased brain responds to treatment with Naproxen (the active ingredient in Aleve). Naproxen is normally used to reduce inflammation and pain throughout the body, so Dr. Near is investigating whether it may also reduce brain inflammation, which is a large part of the disease process in AD. His group is using MRI and MRS to monitor whether treating their rats with Naproxen from an early age can slow down the unhealthy structural and chemical changes known to occur in the brain during AD.

The study is still ongoing, but if it is successful, doctors may one day be prescribing a daily Naproxen and a yearly MRI as a way to effectively manage a devastating disease that affects 50 million people worldwide, and ensure that no one forgets their own birthday.

More about the author

Comic of old couple, the man can't remember his birthday

originally designed by Brian Crane; published May 30, 2014.

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