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Winter 2009

Drug for Alzheimer’s Disease Could Relieve Migraines


UCLA researchers have found that people who suffer from migraines and don’t benefit from current treatments may get relief from a drug that is already approved to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

It is estimated that one in four women and one in ten men suffer from migraines. The researchers found that among patients who don’t respond to current medications, 65 percent experienced at least a 50-percent reduction in headaches from the drug memantine, which is marketed to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Good treatments for migraines are available, but such a large percentage of patients have an unsatisfactory response or no response to the available medications that we are in desperate need for new options,” says neurologist Andrew Charles, M.D., director of the UCLA Headache Research and Treatment Program. “This is a completely new category of drug for migraine.”

Sonja Rosen, M.D., a geriatrician at Santa Monica- UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital, has used memantine to treat patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease, and has noted small but beneficial effects on cognitive function and functional decline. “It does appear to have an effect on brain function, and therefore it makes sense that it could possibly also have a role in the treatment of migraine headaches,” she says.

Memantine inhibits a brain process that is increasingly seen as a key factor in causing the headaches. “We’re looking at the possibility that it is a problem of brain chemistry and excitability,” Dr. Charles says.

Imaging studies of patients in the throes of a migraine show waves of electrical activity slowly spreading across the surface of the brain, followed by an inhibition of activity. This phenomenon was first observed more than 60 years ago, but only recently have headache researchers begun to appreciate that preventing it from occurring could be the key to preventing migraines. Memantine was found to be a strong candidate to inhibit this process.

The UCLA researchers are now working to advance the studies necessary to obtain Food and Drug Administration approval of memantine for migraines.

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