Interpreting brain activity is a very tricky business. Even the most basic difference can be interpreted in two ways — i.e., what does it mean if a region is more active in one group of people compared to another? A new study not only indicates a new therapeutic approach to amnestic mild cognitive impairment, but also demonstrates the folly of assuming that greater activity is good.
Higher activity in the dentate gyrus/CA3 region of the hippocampus is often seen in disorders associated with an increased Alzheimer's risk, such as aMCI. It’s been thought, reasonably enough, that this might reflect compensatory activity, as the brain recruits extra resources in the face of memory loss. But rodent studies have suggested an alternative interpretation: that the increased activity might itself be part of the problem.
Following on from animal studies, this new study has investigated the effects of a drug that reduces hippocampal hyperactivity. The drug, levetiracetam, is used to treat epilepsy. The 17 patients with aMCI (average age 73) were given a placebo in the first two-week treatment phase and a low dose of the epilepsy drug during the second treatment phase, while 17 controls (average age 69) were given a placebo in both treatment phases. The treatments were separated by four weeks, and brain scans were given at the end of each phase. Participants carried out a cognitive task designed to assess memory errors attributable to a dysfunction in the dentate gyrus/CA3 region (note that these neighboring areas are not clearly demarcated from each other, and so are best analyzed as one).
As predicted, those with aMCI showed greater activity in this region, and treatment with the drug significantly reduced that activity. The drug treatment also significantly improved their performance on the three-choice recognition task, with a significant decrease in memory errors. It did not have a significant effect on general cognition or memory (as measured by delayed recall on the Verbal Paired Associates subtest of the Wechsler Memory Scale, the Benton Visual Retention Test, and the Buschke Selective Reminding Test).
These findings make it clear that the excess activity in the hippocampus is not compensatory, and also point to the therapeutic value of targeting this hyperactivity for those with aMCI. It also raises the possibility that other conditions might benefit from this approach. For example, those who carry the Alzheimer’s gene, APOE4, also show increased hippocampal activity.