The Cure for Alzheimer’s Might Be Sitting on the Shelf

Chuckles Freely

The FDA approved the medications gemfibrozil and retinoic acid decades ago for other uses, but now scientists believe they can reverse Alzheimer’s disease.

Globally, some 50 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s, a degenerative brain disease characterized by memory loss, poor judgement, disorientation, among many other symptoms. For those that suffer from it and their families, the onset of Alzheimer’s can radically alter their lives, leaving many in need of serious care and counseling. Canadian author Joey Comeau said that “Alzheimer’s disease is death before death, and I’m terrified of it.”

Despite the seriousness and prevalence of the disease, scientists have struggled to pinpoint the cause, let alone the cure. In recent years, though, they’ve discovered that it’s likely due to the build up of abnormal proteins in the brain, forming a sort-of plaque around brain cells, impeding their normal functioning. In particular, it seems that a protein called amyloid beta (Aβ) is the culprit. In a series of recent studies, researchers have shown that two decades-old drugs, Gemfibrozil and retinoic acid, can significantly reduce the presence of amyloid beta (Aβ), so you may already have the cure sitting in your medicine cabinet.

It’s in the Stars

A team of researchers from Chicago’s Rush Medical Center believe the cure to Alzheimer’s disease depends on tweaking Gemfibrozil and retinoic acid to target astrocytes, named so because they resemble stars. Astrocytes are non-neuronal cells located in the brain and central nervous system. They don’t produce electrical impulses like neurons, but they have the important responsibilities of repairing brain and nerve tissue, providing nutrients, regulating blood flow, etc. As of now, they’re not well understood and are a major emerging field in neuroscience.
Picture of an AstrocyteGerryShaw

One of the main reasons for the growing interest in astrocytes is because they seem to be connected to an array of brain and nervous diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Rasmussen’s encephalitis, and of course Alzheimer’s disease. While no specific causes for these diseases are known, researchers at Rush Medical Center have found evidence that Alzheimer’s may be caused by astrocytes contributing to the build up of amyloid beta (Aβ), a plaque that surrounds and debilitates neurons. Overtime, astrocytes can contribute so much amyloid beta that a person’s neurons are unable to work properly, stealing their ability to function and retrieve memories.

Of Mice and Men

Experimenting on mice, Sumita Raha and other researchers from Rush Medical Center found that a very particular combination of Gemfibrozil and retinoic acid can actually reduce the amount of amyloid beta (Aβ) in the brain and nervous system. In their paper, they claimed that “In mice, the combination of retinoic acid and gemfibrozil reduced Aβ load and improved cognitive function. The findings suggest that these drugs could be repurposed to harness astrocytes as Aβ-clearing machines in AD.”

In particular, mice cells were given retinoic acid, which stimulated the astrocytes within them enough to begin phagocytosis, a process in which a cell uses it’s outer membrane to surround and absorb outside particles. The astrocytes essentially ate the amyloid beta, and once inside, was degraded by gemfibrozil, a cholesterol drug given to people with high cholesterol and high triglyceride levels. The researchers believe the mice showed increased cognition afterwards, suggesting the same is possible with humans. The researchers said that “The findings suggest that these drugs could be repurposed to harness astrocytes as Aβ-clearing machines.”

Death Before Death

When Joey Comeau described Alzheimer’s as “death before death” he was echoing the experiences of millions of sufferers that became different people, as the disease affects a person’s memory of their loved ones, their experiences, and even of themselves. Scrolling through the Alzheimer’s Association’s blog, we can see numerous heart wrenching stories.

For example, Bob MacDonnell‘s family first suspected something was wrong back in 2008. At the dinner table, he would tell the same story or joke a few times in a row. Initially the family was in denial. His son claimed that “I buried some of my thoughts as we began to suspect something was wrong with Dad.” At some point, he began to lose his ability to filter himself, and before long the disease made him dependent on his family, primarily his wife. Luckily for “Luck Bob,” he had a loving family capable of meeting his needs.

Though, for many suffering from Alzheimer’s, they lack the necessary support network, leaving them to suffer with their disease alone and scared. This is especially true for sufferers in developing nations, as they lack access to basic healthcare and medial education. In some countries, Alzheimer’s or any sort of mental decline is still associated with the supernatural. Adesola Ogunniyi from University College Hospital in Ibadan, Nigeria said that in his country “some people still ascribe dementia to possession by evil spirits or to witchcraft, causing families to conceal their medical problems.” In Colombia, it’s just called “la bobera” or “the foolishness.”

Therefore, a cure is desperately needed. While many other research teams are working on one, the team from Chicago’s Rush Medical Center seems to be making great strides. Hopefully, their unique use of Gemfibrozil and retinoic acid can provide the relief so many have been waiting for.

Originally published at on November 17, 2021.

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Politics and science writer at The Happy Neuron

New York, NY

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