Aug. 10, 2000 -- Taking a few tablets of ibuprofen every day may help prevent Alzheimer's disease, according to animal research recently published in the August issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. And now, researchers think they are beginning to understand why. But until they know for sure, it's best, and safest, not to run out and stock up on the drug.
In Alzheimer's disease, patients gradually lose their memory and their ability to carry out normal activities. This seems to be caused by changes in their brains associated with plaque deposits made up of a protein called beta-amyloid.
Researchers have thought for a while that ibuprofen and similar anti-inflammatory medicines may help prevent Alzheimer's disease. Previous studies conducted in large groups of people have shown that those who've used anti-inflammatory medicines in the past are less likely to develop the disease. Now, these researchers are suggesting how or why this might happen.
In this study, a special strain of mice that develop a condition similar to Alzheimer's disease was fed a diet rich in ibuprofen for six months. As expected, the amount of inflammation in their brains was reduced, compared to mice on a standard diet.
But researchers were surprised by another, unexpected effect. Ibuprofen-eating mice developed only half as many amyloid plaques as the other mice. "If you have a red, inflamed area on your leg due to a splinter, and you take an anti-inflammatory medicine, you do expect the inflamed area to decrease. You don't expect the medicine to get rid of the splinter," Greg Cole, PhD, tells WebMD. "What we found was like a medicine that somehow reduces or prevents the splinter." Cole, the author of the study, is associate director of the UCLA Alzheimer's Disease Center and associate professor of medicine and neurology.
If ibuprofen cuts human amyloid plaque by 50%, that could delay onset of Alzheimer's disease by a decade, Cole says. Since the risk of developing the disease increases dramatically after age 65, that 10-year delay translates into a 75% decrease in the total number of Alzheimer's patients.
"This important research gives further scientific credibility to the possibility that anti-inflammatories are going to work as a treatment for Alzheimer's," Zaven Khachaturian, PhD, tells WebMD. "It gives a plausible biological explanation for how the drug might work." Khachaturian is the senior science adviser of the Alzheimer's Association and former director of Alzheimer's disease research at the National Institutes of Health.
However, the mice in this study absorbed high doses of ibuprofen, higher than the doses people usually take. For some people, large doses of ibuprofen can have harmful effects, such as gastric bleeding and kidney damage.
That's one reason both Cole and Khachaturian say people should not start taking ibuprofen on their own, hoping to prevent Alzheimer's disease. For one thing, this research is still in a preliminary stage. Treatments that work in animals often don't work in humans, Khachaturian says.
More importantly, ibuprofen can have harmful effects when combined with other medicines. "I wouldn't advise people to take ibuprofen," Cole says. "If they are thinking about taking it, they should consult their physician first, and take a dose that doesn't produce any undesirable side effects or adverse interactions with other medications they're taking."
Meanwhile, the research team plans to repeat its study with lower doses of ibuprofen, to see if they work equally well. It also plans to test other anti-inflammatory medicines.
While this sort of laboratory research is an important building block in the case to use anti-inflammatories to fight Alzheimer's, conclusive evidence can only come from long-term clinical trials on large groups of people. That sort of research is moving forward.
This study was funded by the National Institute on Aging, the Elizabeth and Thomas Plott Family Foundation, the Alzheimer's Association, Veterans Affairs Merit, and the Katherine and Benjamin Kagan Alzheimer's Treatment Program.