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Rodent of the week: Smart drug -- old medicine, new mind?

February 6, 2009 |  1:16 pm

A drug used to treat victims of stroke for almost a decade may be the next big smart pill -- if you're a middle-aged rat, at least.

When put through a series of memory and learning tasks, hydroxyfasudil -- the active ingredient in the stroke drug Fasudil, made aging rats outperform their unmedicated peers by a wide margin, which grew even wider with a bigger dose. The results, reported by a team of researchers from the Arizona Alzheimer's Consortium and several other Arizona institutions, are to be published in the February issue of Behavioral Neuroscience, a publication of the American Psychological Assn.

The study could place Fasudil in the company of such popular "study drugs" as methylphenidate (also known as Ritalin) and modafinil (also known as Provigil). And this study comes at a time of growing debate over the ethics of using medication -- rather than hitting the books harder -- as a means of improving mental performance. Scientists and drug companies are eager to find or develop a drug to stave off mental decline in the nation's aging baby boomer generation, not to mention to treat Alzheimer's disease. Though some have questioned whether science should create a pill to banish age-related fog or pump up students' mental muscle, a group of respected neuroscientists and ethicists recently said that if a cognitive-enhancing medication could be found that carried few negative side effects, society would benefit from its discovery and widespread use.

The Arizona study suggests Fasudil could be a candidate.

Compared with rats in the control group, the rats injected with hydroxyfasudil were better at learning to navigate a maze that required them to learn and remember the locations of platforms that lay submerged under opaque water. As the 12 days of testing proceeded, the rats were challenged to recall the locations of a growing number of platforms -- a test of so-called working, or short-term, memory under more demanding conditions. Again, the hydroxyfasudil-injected rats showed not only a superior ability to learn the task, but to hold in their memory more information about the maze.

Fasudil is a vasodilator originally used in the treatment of heart disease, and in more recent years, to improve outcomes in patients who have suffered a stroke. The scientists called it a drug with demonstrated cardiovascular benefits and few known side effects that could have far-reaching clinical uses. Co-author Heather Bimonte-Nelson of Arizona State University called the effects of Fasudil "robust," and said it "shows great promise as a cognitive enhancer during aging."

The study's lead author, Matthew Huentelman of Arizona's Translational Genomics Research Institute, said the group is already exploring options for human trials of the drug as a treatment for cognitive impairment and dementia.

-- Melissa Healy