Researchers, led by Shannon Risacher from the Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center of the Indiana University School of Medicine, have uncovered new evidence that could help explain the connection between the use of anticholinergic drugs and the existence of dementia and cognitive impairment in patients.
Discussing the results of the study through an email, Dr. Risacher had this to say:
There are definitely medical benefits to all of the anticholinergic medications we looked at, which could outweigh the cognitive risks.
Doctors prescribe anticholinergic drugs, also often available over the counter, for common medical problems like allergies, colds, and the flu. These drugs work by mitigating the effects of acetylcholine in the body’s nervous system. Some of the best known drugs within this list include Benadryl® for allergies and Dimetapp® for flus and colds.
The new study identified 451 respondents, most of whom were older citizens above age 73. Within this group, 60 of the 451 respondents had been on some form of anticholinergic medication for at least a month. The brain scans of these 60 respondents were taken and then compared to the remaining respondents to visualize differences in cognitive abilities.
The study results confirmed what many experts claim to know but have not been able to prove scientifically. Brain scans of individuals who had taken anticholinergic drugs showed that cognitive abilities had been compromised. Individuals showed lower glucose processing levels in areas that indicate brain activity. In addition, this group of respondents also had reduced brain volume and thickness in specific parts of the skull.
While presenting the findings, lead author, Dr. Shannon Risacher emphasized that in spite of their cognitive risks, anticholinergic drugs should, and will, continue to be used until a safer alternative is found. The study’s authors noted two important limitations of their study: There were a small number of participants, and the participants’ drug usage records were not verifiable, prior to study.