Doctors prescribe a variety of drugs for Alzheimer’s treatment, most of which treat behavioral and/or psychotic Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. At present, only two types of Alzheimer’s disease drugs actually slow the progression of the condition. Cholinesterase inhibitors are used primarily in earlier stages, and memantine is the only drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for late-stage Alzheimer’s treatment. New Alzheimer’s drugs, however, are being tested.
Drugs for Alzheimer’s Treatment: Cholinesterase inhibitors
Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease exhibit decreased levels of acetylcholine in their brains. Since researchers believe that this neurotransmitter performs an important role in memory and thought, cholinesterase inhibitors raise acetylcholine levels. These Alzheimer’s disease drugs work best in the early and mid stages of the disease because as Alzheimer’s progresses, the brain produces less acetylcholine and drug effectiveness decreases.
This family of Alzheimer’s disease drugs includes:
- Donepezil (AriceptÂ®)
- Galantamine (ReminylÂ®)
- Rivastigmine (ExelonÂ®)
- Tacrine (CognexÂ®).
Cholinesterase inhibitors don’t cure Alzheimer’s; they work by slowing the deterioration of cognitive function. According to the Alzheimer’s Association (2010), cholinesterase inhibitors may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s symptoms for about 6 months to a year. Approximately half of users will experience this improvement, while the other half may not.
Common side effects of these Alzheimer’s disease drugs include:
- Loss of appetite
Clinical tests show that all cholinesterase inhibitors are essentially equal in their ability to slow Alzheimer’s symptoms, although some may work better in certain individuals.
Drugs for Alzheimer’s Treatment: Memantine
As the only FDA-approved medication for moderate to severe Alzheimer’s treatment, memantine (NamendaÂ®) protects neurons in the brain from high levels of glutamate, a chemical messenger produced in large quantities by Alzheimer’s-damaged neurons. In protecting these neurons, memantine slows the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Patients can take this drug alone or in combination with other drugs for Alzheimer’s (such as cholinesterase inhibitors).
Most experts believe that memantine is similar to cholinesterase inhibitors in both its effectiveness and benefit to the patient. Common side effects of memantine include:
Memantine may also increase agitation and delusions in some individuals.
The Need for New Alzheimer’s Drugs
Researchers are trying to develop new Alzheimer’s drugs that are better at delaying the progression of Alzheimer’s symptoms, as well as drugs that prevent or halt the progression of the disease altogether. According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research (2010), there are over 20 new Alzheimer’s drugs currently undergoing testing or awaiting FDA approval.
Alzheimer’s Association. (n.d.) Standard treatments. Retrieved June 15, 2010, from http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_standard_prescriptions.asp.
American Health Assistance Foundation. (n.d.) Common Alzheimer’s treatments. Retrieved June 15, 2010, from http://www.ahaf.org/alzheimers/treatment/common/.
Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. (n.d.) Alzheimer’s drug treatment. Retrieved June 15, 2010, from http://www.alzinfo.org/alzheimers-treatment-drug.asp.
Mayo Clinic. (2009). Alzheimer’s drugs slow progression of disease. Retrieved June 15, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alzheimers/AZ00015.
Mayo Clinic. (2009). Treatments and drugs. Retrieved June 15, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alzheimers-disease/DS00161/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs.
U.S. National Institutes of Health National Institute of Aging. (n.d.) The search for AD prevention strategies. Retrieved April 28, 2010, from http://www.nia.nih.gov/Alzheimers/Publications/ADPrevented/strategies.htm.