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Inflammation Attacks Brain Health

By Dr. Gary Small, MD

One reason for the lack of success in developing anti-amyloid treatments has been that even though the presence of brain amyloid partly defines Alzheimer’s, it’s not clear whether its accumulation causes the disease or is the result of another underlying abnormality. Considerable research suggests that other age-related brain abnormalities — such as inflammation and oxidative stress — contribute to the cognitive impairments that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Although inflammation is a natural process for repairing tissue damage, as people age their brains undergo heightened inflammation that may damage normal cells. An older brain also suffers from oxidative stress, which involves the buildup of highly reactive molecules called free radicals, which can cause wear and tear on brain cells.

I became interested in the connection between mind health and brain inflammation several years ago when I led a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that tested whether an anti-inflammatory drug benefited age-related memory decline. Because it’s easier to protect a healthy brain than to repair damage that has already been done, our research team focused on treating people with mild age-related memory issues who were at risk for developing Alzheimer’s dementia in the future.

We found that the anti-inflammatory medicine celecoxib (Celebrex) offered memory benefits compared to an inactive placebo. But unfortunately, extensive use of anti-inflammatory drugs can lead to many side effects. In fact, other studies have indicated that anti-inflammatory drugs can actually worsen memory function in patients with more advanced cognitive decline (dementia).