Alzheimer’s patients could be given common ADHD drugs like Ritalin after research showed they made significant improvements to cognition and brain function. A combined group of scientists from Imperial College London, the University of Cambridge and University College London analysed data from 19 studies involving nearly 2,000 patients and discovered the potential.
It’s thought they could be beneficial because they activate a region of the brain associated with attention, learning and memory. The team also found the medications had an impact on behaviour, reducing apathy and improving motivation. This is considered “good evidence” that the drugs could be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s in future.
The majority of the participants in the studies, which were published between 1980 and 2021, were in a 65 to 80 age range. Some of the research saw the patients given the drugs for as little as two weeks, while at the other end of the spectrum they were administered them for a year.
ADHD medications work by targeting a chemical called noradrenaline, which is released by specialised neurons in a network across the body. Among the processes it influences are attention, memory and regulating inappropriate behaviour. While there was no effect on attention, the research noted improvements in cognition and apathy.
In response to the findings, Dr Mark Dallas, associate professor in cellular neuroscience at the University of Reading, said it was an “exciting prospect” being able to repurpose existing drugs to fight dementia. Utilising medication in this way has a number of benefits, such as a well-established safety profile.
Dr Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said: “There is currently a lack of drugs approved to treat apathy in Alzheimer's, a symptom that has been linked to lower quality of life, faster decline and increased stress for carers.
“This well-conducted meta-analysis highlights the potential of noradrenergic drugs to treat some aspects of Alzheimer's, but the evidence in the trials reviewed here varies in quality and it's hard to directly compare results from each study because the methods used are not consistent.”
She added that it’s not yet known what impact ADHD medications could have on the day-to-day life of an Alzheimer’s patient or if the benefits would outweigh the risks. The most common side effects of this type of medication are loss of appetite and insomnia.
Of the 143 drugs currently in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s, the majority are aimed at targeting the processes that drive the condition. Relatively few offer hope for treating the disease for which there is currently no cure. Early diagnosis means a patient can take medication to try and slow its progress but most people only have dementia identified once they start to develop symptoms.
It’s estimated 57.4 million around the world are living with dementia and Alzheimer’s is the most common form of the condition. Predictions suggest that by 2050, this figure will have risen to 152.8 million.