Widely prescribed statins may help to fight Alzheimer’s if they’re given in early stages.A widely prescribed statin could help in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease if it is given at an early stage, researchers suggest.

The cholesterol-lowering drug simvastatin may prevent some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s by improving the function of blood vessels, their study has found.

It also found the drug boosted learning and memory – but only in younger sufferers when the disease had not progressed far.

Decline: A diseased brain, left, beside a healthy one. Doctors now believe a statin could help fight Alzheimer’s

However, statin treatment had no effect on one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, a build-up of amyloid-beta protein in the brain, even in the those who benefited.

The study was carried out on mice by researchers at McGill University, Montreal, who published their findings in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Previous work by the same Canadian research team in older mice showed low-dose simvastatin improved blood vessel function but had no effect on memory.

About one million prescriptions for the cholesterol-lowering drugs are written in England each week, and statins have become a mainstay for doctors treating heart attack and stroke survivors.

They make up the vast majority of lipid-lowering drugs and are effective at lowering levels of cholesterol, the fatty substance in blood that clogs up arteries and leads to heart attacks.

However, there has been no clear evidence from previous research that they help reduce Alzheimer’s symptoms – indeed memory loss is one of the known side-effects of the drugs.


Research into Alzheimer’s shows statins should be geared towards an early stage

In the latest study, younger mice aged around six months and year-old mice with Alzheimer’s disease were tested after receiving a high dose of simvastatin for three to six months. The drug restored brain blood vessel function in both groups, but only the younger animals showed improvements in learning and memory tests.

Younger mice had higher levels of two memory-related proteins in the hippocampus, the brain’s key memory centre.

Study leader Dr Edith Hamel said: ‘This study shows that simvastatin can protect against some of the damaging effects of Alzheimer’s disease on nerve cells involved in memory, if administered early in the disease process.’

The scientists pointed out that more research was needed to find out whether humans could benefit in the same way.

Alzheimer’s expert Dr Ling Li, from the University of Minnesota, said: ‘This joins an increasing number of pre-clinical studies demonstrating that statins, in particular simvastatin – which easily penetrates the brain – can counteract some aspects of Alzheimer’s disease, despite seeing no effects on amyloid-beta protein.

‘The key now is to figure out how to translate these exciting findings from bench to bedside.’

Dr Simon Ridley, from the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, said ‘Overall evidence suggests that statins like simvastatin do not benefit people with dementia, but this new mouse study suggests that the timing of treatment could be vital.

‘Many experts believe that treatments for dementia will be most beneficial if given very early in the disease process.’

He added: ‘There is a real need to push on with research that will boost early detection and help people with dementia get more benefit from treatments.’