A drug normally used to treat Alzheimer’s disease may actually diminish type 2 diabetes and heart disease risk.
Researchers say the drug accomplishes this by combatting metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions, including high blood sugar, hypertension, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. These conditions increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
There is no medication approved to treat the syndrome itself. Doctors often prescribe medication or advise lifestyle changes to ease individual conditions such as hypertension.
Galantamine has been used for years to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
After seeing how the drug affected mice, researchers realized that the medication had anti-inflammatory properties that could potentially benefit people with metabolic syndrome.
“We knew that inflammation is also an important component of metabolic syndrome,” Valentin A. Pavlov, PhD, told Healthline. Pavlov is an associate professor at the Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and a study co-author.
The researchers found that the drug targets the nervous system, including the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
That system affects bodily functions such as metabolic processes and digestion.
The vagus nerve can also have an impact on inflammation levels in the body.
Since the drug has already been approved for use to treat people with Alzheimer’s disease, researchers didn’t have to go through trials to establish the drug’s safety.
“By repurposing galantamine, it means we don’t have to start from zero to establish its safety. We already know it’s safe,” Pavlov said in a statement.
How the study was conducted
In their study, researchers recruited 60 people, evenly split between men and women, for a double-blind placebo trial.
Half of the study subjects were given galantamine and half were given a placebo over 12 weeks.
The researchers examined the study participants’ insulin levels, insulin resistance, heart rate, weight, and cholesterol levels in addition to a variety of other inflammation markers.
At the end of the study period, the patients given the drug had significantly decreased inflammatory markers in their blood compared to their counterparts who were only given placebos. Those who took galantamine also had lower insulin levels and insulin resistance than those who had received the placebo.
Fat deposits and weight were not significantly different between the groups. There were also no significant changes in HDL and LDL cholesterol levels between the two groups.
Pavlov said the findings were somewhat shocking considering the short time frame.
“We saw alleviation of insulin resistance. It was little bit surprising,” Pavlov said. “We didn’t expect to see so many good things.”
More research needed
Pavlov said that they hope to expand the study in the future to ensure the results can be recreated in a much larger population.
Dr. Yael Tobi Harris, a study co-author, said that the drug could potentially provide a new way to approach treating metabolic syndrome. Harris is the chief of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York.
“It’s a small study and early findings, but it definitely indicates that this is a potential treatment that should be investigated further,” Harris said.
Dr. Laure Sayyed Kassem, an endocrinologist at University Hospitals Cleveland who was not involved in the study, said the findings of decreased inflammatory markers are “interesting.”
However, she said there needs to be more evidence the drug can affect the many other symptoms of metabolic syndrome.
“The idea of having one medication to treat metabolic syndrome — it’s a little simplistic,” Kassem said.
Kassem said the study’s short time frame may be one reason other symptoms of metabolic syndrome, such as weight and cholesterol levels, were not affected.
“I don’t know if that’s because of short duration or if the medication isn’t effective enough to produce clinical change,” she said.