Epilepsy drugs useful for Alzheimer's

Medicines commonly used to treat epilepsy and other seizure disorders appear to be effective at soothing the agitation in people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, University scientists have found.

The findings are a glimmer of good news for the treatment of some of the most disturbing aspects of the disease, which afflicts about 4 million people in the United States alone.

The results were featured at a media briefing last week at the 6th International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Psychiatrists Pierre Tariot and Anton Porsteinsson, physicians at the University's main Alzheimer's treatment site at Monroe Community Hospital, presented the results from several placebo-controlled studies showing that the compounds are effective in treating agitation among patients with dementia. The medicines appear to be as good as or better than the medicines physicians have available now to treat agitation, Tariot said. Patients' aggression and agitation are often the top concerns among families of patients.

"The behavioral disturbances wear caregivers down and are one of the main reasons that patients are admitted to acute and long-term care institutions," Porsteinsson said. "People don't put their husbands or mothers in nursing homes because they are forgetful; they're put in a nursing home because they are a danger to themselves or others, or because they're unbearably hostile or aggressive. This type of medicine alleviates those symptoms for many patients in a population that is a bear to treat."

About three-quarters of patients on the medicine carbamazepine improved in two of the studies, which were funded by the National Institutes of Health. The second study, with 51 patients, was halted prematurely because the drug appeared so effective that physicians concluded that further enrollment was not necessary and that all patients should have access to it.

Tariot's research group of about 20 doctors, nurses, and other staff is currently conducting about 20 studies with approximately 225 patients. The carbamazepine and divalproex studies included patients from Monroe Community Hospital, St. John's Home, the Jewish Home, St. Ann's Home, the Highlands Living Center, and the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Canandaigua. At the outpatient clinic at Monroe Community Hospital, the team treats an additional 400 patients on an ongoing basis.

"The field is evolving very rapidly," said Tariot, who led a symposium on treatment of behavioral disorders and dementia at the Amsterdam meeting. "Six years ago, there was nothing to treat Alzheimer's disease. Now, we have two FDA-approved drugs and as many as a dozen more coming out within five years. We're even talking about prevention strategies. It's very exciting and gratifying."

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