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This article was originally published in March, 1999

Alzheimer's Drug May Benefit Down Syndrome Patients
c.1999 Medical Tribune News Service

A drug that has been shown to help patients with Alzheimer's disease may also boost the communication skills and attention levels of adults with Down syndrome.

The drug, Aricept, was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration three years ago for people with Alzheimer's disease, a progressive and degenerative disorder of the brain. In drug studies, Aricept was associated with moderate improvements in the cognitive skills of patients suffering from the early stages of the disease.

Now a report published Friday in the British medical journal The Lancet claims that a preliminary study of four Down syndrome patients treated with Aricept has demonstrated improvements in their "communication, expressive language, attention and mood stability."

Dr. Priya S. Kishnani and colleagues from the Down Syndrome Clinic at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., tested the results of the drug after noting that some effects of Down syndrome were similar to those experienced by patients with Alzheimer's disease.

Down syndrome is a genetic abnormality that causes delayed physical, intellectual and language development. Approximately 4,000 Down syndrome children are born in the United States each year, according to the Down Syndrome Resource League in Kalamazoo, Mich.

The four participants - two males ages 24 and 27, a 38-year-old woman and a 64-year-old man - underwent treatment with Aricept for an average of nine months. The two older patients had already been diagnosed with dementia, a condition that is believed to be common among Down syndrome patients and frequently strikes at a relatively young age.

In evaluating the patients six months after treatment, researchers found improvements in all patients, especially the younger males. No serious side effects were noted.

Kishnani is currently enrolling adult Down syndrome patients in a larger drug test that will compare the results of one group on Aricept with a second group on placebo.

"Our preliminary results are promising but it would be premature to describe the drug as beneficial at this stage," said Kishnani.

Dr. Brian Chicoine, medical director of the Adult Down Syndrome Center of the Lutheran General Hospital in Glenview, Ill., agreed that it would be difficult to quantify the effects of Aricept in Down syndrome based on a preliminary study of just four patients.

"We know that patients with Down syndrome and Alzheimer's disease experience a loss of cholinergic input," he said, referring to the enzymes and proteins responsible for the manufacture of a chemical used in the transmission of nerve impulses known as acetylcholine. Levels of acetylcholine are low in both Down syndrome and Alzheimer's patients.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, Aricept is believed to be less effective in patients suffering from the advanced stages of the disease.

Chicoine is conducting his own placebo-controlled test of Aricept on Down syndrome adults. He anticipates that 20 patients will be enrolled in the study later this year.

This page last updated on 15 April 2008.

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