Researchers found children with the disorder who received the Alzheimer's drug Aricept experienced an improvement in language skills, such as being able to express themselves. If further studies confirm these results, researchers say the drug may potentially help children with Down syndrome learn better and communicate more effectively.
Down syndrome is the most common genetic cause of mental retardation worldwide, and it affects about one in every 800 births. People born with the condition suffer from varying degrees of mental retardation and are more prone to other diseases, such as heart disease. But recent medical advances have extended the expected life span of people with Down syndrome to over age 55.
"As people with Down syndrome continue to live longer, [drugs] that might increase their quality of life are of paramount importance," researcher Priya Kishnani, MD, a medical geneticist and co-director of the Down Syndrome Clinic at Duke University Medical Center, says in a news release. Yet, he adds that there remains no available drug treatment that can help patients with Down syndrome improve thinking and communication and live more independently. "It's an unmet need."
"A [drug] that could change the lives of people with Down syndrome early in childhood, making them more active learners, could really maximize their benefit and quality of life," says Kishnani.
Drug Targets Mind to Improve Language Skills
In the study, researchers examined the effects of Aricept in seven children with Down syndrome who ranged in age from 8 to 13. The results appear in the Oct. 15 issue of the American Journal of Medical Genetics.
At the start of the study, the children's average score on a test of expressive language skills was equivalent to a child 4 years old. After four months of taking Aricept, researchers found the children showed improvements in their ability to communicate their thoughts and feelings and their score increased to that of a child 4.5 years old.
The study showed that some children experienced no change, and others demonstrated an eight-month gain in age score.
"You expect that children with Down syndrome will show improvements in language skills over time, but certainly not at the rate we observed in most participants over the course of the study," researcher James Heller, a language pathologist at Duke, says in the news release.
Researchers say Aricept increases the availability of the chemical messenger acetylcholine to improve brain function. It does this by blocking the enzyme that normally breaks down the chemical.
They say the findings confirm the results of a previous study of Aricept in adults with Down syndrome. But they caution that both of these studies involved only a very small number of people and more studies are needed to better understand the effects of Aricept in children and adults with Down syndrome.