We consider new research about whether drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis could reduce the risk of developing dementia.
Research has suggested that inflammation plays a role in dementia. ‘Inflammation’ in this case means activation of the immune system of the brain rather than swelling. Yet clinical drug trials using anti-inflammatory drugs haven’t shown any benefit for people with dementia. Some researchers suspect that it might be a matter of using different drugs, much earlier, before symptoms begin.
In February, Professor Christopher Edwards and colleagues in Southampton and Oxford published their findings. They suggested that anti-rheumatic drugs might reduce the risk of dementia. This research is currently in its very earliest stages. More in-depth research is needed before we can be confident of this finding.
This study wasn’t a clinical trial. Instead it was an observational study, which means that the researchers looked back over the medical records of people with rheumatoid arthritis. They observed that people who had taken anti-rheumatic drugs appeared less likely to develop dementia than those who had not. We must bear in mind that their reduced risk of dementia could also have been due to other lifestyle factors. A clinical trial could rule out these other factors, as drug testing will be done in carefully controlled conditions.
Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society, said,
‘It is vital to explore whether drugs developed for other conditions also have benefits for dementia, as it could make it much quicker to get new drugs to the people who desperately need them. Alzheimer’s Society is prioritising this approach to research.’
Based on this early evidence, Alzheimer’s Society is now funding Dr Bernadette McGuinness at Queen’s University Belfast, who is working with Professor Chris Edwards to take this research further. If this research is successful it will pave the way for a clinical trial to test whether these drugs can stop or slow the onset of dementia.