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Scientists: century-old drug might cure Parkinson’s, more

Aug. 18, 2008
Courtesy Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal & 
Re­search Cen­ter Oak­land
and World Science staff

A study with mice sug­gests a century-old drug, meth­yl­ene blue, could slow or even cure Alz­heim­er’s and Park­in­son’s dis­ease in small doses, re­search­ers say.

“To find that such a com­mon and in­ex­pen­sive drug can be used to in­crease and pro­long the qual­ity of life by treat­ing such se­ri­ous dis­eases is truly ex­cit­ing,” said Bruce Ames, a co-author of the study at Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal & Re­search Cen­ter Oak­land, in Cal­i­for­nia.

Mi­to­chon­dria are small com­part­ments par­ti­tioned by mem­branes and found in com­plex cells. These or­ganelles are of­ten called the "power plants" of the cell be­cause their main job is to make en­er­gy. Above, a a mi­to­chon­d­rion shown in an ar­tist's de­pic­tion for clar­ity. (Im­age cour­te­sy US Nat'l Sci­ence Founda­tion)


Led by Hani Atamna at the center, re­search­ers stud­ied the drug’s ef­fects on lab­ora­tory-cultured cells and mice. 

In very low con­centra­t­ion­s—the equiv­a­lent of a few rain­drops in four Olym­pic-sized swim­ming pools—the drug slows cel­lu­lar ag­ing and en­hances the func­tion of cel­lu­lar “power plants” called mi­to­chon­dria, the ex­pe­ri­menters said. 

Their re­sults ap­peared in the March is­sue of the Fed­er­a­t­ion of Amer­i­can So­ci­eties for Ex­pe­ri­men­tal Bi­ol­o­gy Jour­nal

The group found meth­yl­ene blue could pre­vent or slow mi­to­chon­drial de­cline, spe­cif­ic­ally that of an im­por­tant en­zyme called com­plex IV. Mi­to­chon­dria are the main en­er­gy sup­pli­ers to an­i­mal and hu­man cells.

“The re­sults are very encourag­ing,” said Atam­na. “One of the key as­pects of Alz­heim­er’s dis­ease is mi­to­chon­drial dys­func­tion, spe­cif­ic­ally com­plex IV dys­func­tion,” he went on. Meth­yl­ene blue seems to ex­pand the brain’s “mi­to­chon­drial re­serve,” he added, “essen­tial for pre­vent­ing age-related dis­or­ders.”

Dis­cov­ered in 1891, meth­yl­ene blue is used to treat me­the­mo­glo­bine­mia, a blood dis­or­der. But be­cause high con­centra­t­ions of meth­yl­ene blue were known to dam­age the brain, no one thought to ex­pe­ri­ment with low con­centra­t­ions, Atam­na’s group said. Al­so, drugs such as meth­yl­ene blue don’t easily reach the brain.

Atamna said meth­yl­ene blue could be­come an­oth­er com­monplace low-cost treat­ment like as­pi­rin, pre­scribed as a blood thin­ner for peo­ple with heart dis­or­ders.


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A study with mice suggests a century-old drug, methylene blue, could slow or even cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in small doses, researchers say. “To find that such a common and inexpensive drug can be used to increase and prolong the quality of life by treating such serious diseases is truly exciting,” said Bruce Ames, a co-author of the study at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland, in California. Led by Hani Atamna at the hospital, researchers studied the drug’s effects on laboratory-cultured cells and mice. Used in very low concentrations—the equivalent of a few raindrops in four Olympic-sized swimming pools of water—the drug slows cellular aging and enhances the function of cellular “power plants” called mitochondria, the experimenters said. Their results appeared in the March issue of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal. The group found methylene blue could prevent or slow mitochondrial decline, specifically that of an important enzyme called complex IV. Mitochondria are the main energy suppliers to animal and human cells. “The results are very encouraging,” said Atamna. “One of the key aspects of Alzheimer’s disease is mitochondrial dysfunction, specifically complex IV dysfunction,” he went on. Methylene blue appears to expand the brain’s “mitochondrial reserve,” he added, “essential for preventing age-related disorders.” Discovered in 1891, methylene blue is used to treat methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder. But because high concentrations of methylene blue were known to damage the brain, no one thought to experiment with low concentrations, Atamna’s group said. Also, drugs such as methylene blue don’t easily reach the brain. Atamna said methylene blue could become another commonplace low-cost treatment like aspirin, prescribed as a blood thinner for people with heart disorders.