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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine


A Step Closer to Treating Memory Loss

Having spent more than two decades trying to solve the mysteries of the aging brain, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor Michela Gallagher and her research team are embarking on one of their most important studies yet: determining whether a medication commonly used to treat seizures can help improve memory and brain function in adults suffering from mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, a common precursor to full-blown Alzheimer's disease.

In a groundbreaking previous study, Gallagher's team showed that the drug levetiracetam markedly improved the ability of memory-impaired laboratory rats because it apparently had an impact on "excess brain activity" in the rats' key memory systems. The team knew that excess brain activity is also seen in the same memory system in MCI patients, leading the scientists to hypothesize that levetiracetam could work for humans, too.

"The results of this study could, potentially, help people very significantly and directly," says Gallagher, a professor of psychological and brain sciences who is also the university's vice provost for academic affairs. "If the drug works as well in humans as it did in our animal studies, we potentially have a widely used medication with few side effects that could treat elderly people with early memory problems."

Gallagher's latest research is aided by a $1.3 million National Institutes of Health grant, underwritten by the federal stimulus act. The two-year study will test healthy adults (as controls) and participants with memory difficulties greater than would be expected for their ages. Each person, between 50 and 85 years old, will participate in a sequence of two treatment phases, each lasting two weeks, during which they may receive drug or placebo. After two weeks of the treatment, researchers will evaluate the subjects' cognition using memory tests and map brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging sessions.

Gallagher is working on the project with former Hopkins colleague Craig Stark, who is now at the University of California, Irvine, and their student, Arnold Bakker.



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Michela Gallagher