SCOTTISH researchers have developed a treatment which could be used to improve memory and mental performance in older people.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh revealed a new experimental compound that can improve memory and cognitive function in ageing mice.
The compound is being investigated in the hope it can be developed into a drug that could slow the natural decline in memory linked to getting older.
The researchers, funded by a Wellcome Trust Seeding Drug Discovery award, hope to take a drug into trials in humans within a year.
Memory loss is common as people become older and is seen as a normal part of the ageing process. It is common for older people to have problems recalling people's names or remembering where they left things.
In some cases, these can be an early sign of dementia. But in most cases it is simply down to getting older.
Such memory loss has been linked with high levels of stress steroid hormones, known as glucocorticoids, which affect the part of the brain that helps people to remember.
An enzyme called 11beta-HSD1 is involved in making these hormones and has been shown to be more active in the brain during ageing.
The new study in Edinburgh, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, outlines the effects of a new synthetic compound that selectively blocks 11beta-HSD1 on the ability of mice to complete a memory task, which involved them having to remember the way through a maze.
Professor Jonathan Seckl, who discovered the role of 11beta-HSD1 in the brain, said: "Normal old mice often have marked deficits in learning and memory.
"We found that life-long partial deficiency of 11beta-HSD1 prevented memory decline with ageing. "But we were very surprised to find that the blocking compound works quickly over a few days to improve memory in old mice, suggesting it might be a good treatment for the already elderly."
The researchers said the benefits were seen in the mice after just ten days of treatment.
Professor Brian Walker and Dr Scott Webster, who are leading the drug development programme in Edinburgh, welcomed the initial findings of the study.
Prof Walker said: "These results provide proof of concept that this class of drugs could be useful to treat age-related decline in memory.
"We previously showed that carbenoxolone, an old drug that blocks multiple enzymes including 11beta-HSD1, improves memory in healthy elderly men and in patients with Type 2 diabetes after just a month of treatment, so we are optimistic that our new compounds will be effective in humans."
Dr Rick Davis, from the Wellcome Trust, said: "Developing drugs that can selectively inhibit this enzyme has been a challenge to the pharmaceutical industry for nearly ten years."