Our arsenal against Alzheimer's disease contains a motley mix of potential weapons, including blood tests and "sniff tests" for early detection, implants that release antibodies, and compounds that could treat the disease in a similar fashion to high cholesterol. Now, researchers at the University of Leicester have developed a new class of drug that has been shown to restore memory loss, slow progression and increase the lifespan of mice with a similar degenerative disease. The team hopes that the finding could lead to new treatment options for Alzheimer's in humans.

The study used allosteric ligands, a type of drug that activates a protein in the brain called the M1 muscarinic receptor, which is believed to be associated with Alzheimer's. Activating this protein has been shown to improve the cognition of mice afflicted with progressive brain degeneration, and other drugs have tested the technique in the past.

The problem is, although activating the M1 muscarinic receptor showed promise in aiding brain function, the patients taking those drugs suffered severe side effects. But in this study, the team's allosteric ligands managed to keep the positive results in mice with none of the unwanted side effects. Even better, a daily dose appears to stave off an early grave.

"We have been using mice whose brain cells are progressively dying, similar to what happens in Alzheimer's disease," explains Andrew Tobin, lead researcher on the study. "We have treated mice with a new class of drug, and found that these drugs can not only improve symptoms of brain degeneration, such as cognitive decline, but can also extend the lifespan of these terminally-sick mice."

This treatment should, the researchers hope, inspire other scientists and pharmaceutical companies to investigate the technique and design new drugs that take advantage of the M1 muscarinic receptor.

"This work may provide important information as to whether this protein is a viable drug target in the treatment of diseases associated with the progressive death of brain cells," says Tobin. "This is of great importance to society, based on the fact that the treatment options for Alzheimer's disease are very limited – there are no cures for Alzheimer's disease and current treatments are focused on relieving some of the symptoms."

The research was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. The scientists explain their work in the video below.