The drug rapamycin comes from bacteria found in the soils of Easter Island. It's helped save lives for over a decade by preventing rejection in organ transplants, but that might just be scratching the surface of what it can do.
Rapamycin takes its name from Rapa Nui, the island's name in the native Eastern Polynesian language. The drug was originally intended to be an antifungal medication, but the discovery of its immunosuppressive properties in the late nineties pushed the research in a new direction. Now, over a decade later, we're closing in on another set of amazing new properties for the drug, and it's all to do with reversing the brain's cognitive decline, including potentially stopping Alzheimer's.
It was over two years ago that we first read about this new line of research, and now studies in mice are beginning to bear some seriously intriguing fruit. In a statement, Veronica Galvin of the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies at the University of Texas explains their latest rodent findings:
"We made the young ones learn, and remember what they learned, better than what is normal. Among the older mice, the ones fed with a diet including rapamycin actually showed an improvement, negating the normal decline that you see in these functions with age."
What's more, mice in a high-elevation maze - not the sort of things these naturally burrowing creatures enjoy - were more curious and less frightened about their surroundings when given rapamycin. Dr. Galvin explains:
"We found rapamycin acts like an antidepressant - it increases the time the mice are trying to get out of the situation They don't give up; they struggle more...All of a sudden the mice are in open space. It's pretty far from the floor for their size, sort of like if a person is hiking and suddenly the trail gets steep. It's pretty far down and not so comfortable. We observed that the mice fed with a diet containing rapamycin spent significantly more time out in the open arms of the catwalk than the animals fed with a regular diet. So we can measure how much and how often they struggle as a measure of the motivation they have to get out of an uncomfortable situation."
We still don't know if the drug can have these same effects on the human brain that it does in these mice, but the good news is that rapamycin is already approved for use in humans, so we could see these studies move to clinical trials in the relatively near future.