Drug puts brakes on Alzheimer’s symptoms

It’s no miracle cure, but a new drug just approved in Canada may help slow the intellectual decline of Alzheimer’s patients.

A 24-week trial of donepezil revealed that five milligrams of the drug per day slowed memory loss and stabilized language abilities and attention span in 71 per cent of people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.

The drug is expected to save healthcare costs by allowing people to remain in their own homes longer. And because the decline can now be slowed if treated, it is hoped that more people with the disease will be treated earlier. An estimated 200,000 Canadians are currently afflicted with the disease — a number that is expected to rise to 500,000 by 2030.

Donepezil, marketed by Pfizer Canada as Aricept, blocks an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in transmitting messages through brain cells involved with memory and learning.

Patients, or their elderly caregivers, find it’s a simple regimen — a pill at bedtime, often with other medication. Some 11 per cent of patients experienced nausea; another 10 suffered headaches or insomnia. No damage to the liver or other organs was reported

The clinical trial indicated that once off the medication, the patients’ conditions reverted, within six weeks, to levels of functioning typical of patients who had never received treatment.

Pfizer has applied to have the five dollars per day cost of the drug covered by provincial health plans.

Testing will continue to determine whether the drug will also be effective in more severe cases of Alzheimer’s.