Could An Old Blood Disorders Drug Also Boost Memory?

red-blood-cellsYou may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks but, apparently, you can use an old drug to treat new conditions. In a recent study, scientists have learned that a long-used drug called methylene blue could actually restore activity in brain regions that have slowed to cause short-term memory and attention loss.

Methylene blue is an orally administered drug that is currently approved for the treatment of a blood disorder called methemoglobinemia (where the blood cannot circulate enough oxygen to the body). However, University of Texas Health Science Center professor Timothy Q. Duong, PhD, says that the new study suggests that drug shows great promise for improving short-term memory.  The study used MRIs to discover that the drug appears to be related to an increased response in neural areas of the brains linked with both memory and attention after patients took a single, low, oral dose.

This new study actually confirms results of previous preliminary rodent studies which showed that the drug could enhance memory, but no further study on the underlying neural changes involved had been investigated.

“Although the memory-enhancing effects of methylene blue were shown in rodents in the 1970s, the underlying neuronal changes in the brain responsible for memory improvement and the effects of methylene blue on short-term memory and sustained-attention tasks have not been investigated. Our team decided to conduct the first multi-modal MRI study of methylene blue in humans.”

Duong, the study leader, further comments, This work certainly provides a foundation for future trials of methylene blue in healthy aging, cognitive impairment, dementia, and other conditions that might benefit from drug-induced memory enhancement.”

The study involved 26 healthy participants between the ages of 22 and 62 who were each randomly assigned to a one of two groups either receiving methylene blue or a placebo.  Each team was assigned to receive functional MRI’s on participants: one before and one an hour after receiving the drug or the placebo.  These tests were administered to evaluate the potential effects of the drug on the brain during working memory as well as during sustained-attention tasks.

Dr. Duong attests, “This work certainly provides a foundation for future trials of methylene blue in healthy aging, cognitive impairment, dementia and other conditions that might benefit from drug-induced memory enhancement.” He notes, of course, that more research is needed in order to determine long term and consistent efficacy.

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