As we age, many of us may struggle to remember simple things, such as directions or what film we watched last night. But researchers from the University of Florida say they have discovered a drug that has the potential to reverse mild cognitive decline among older adults.

This is according to a study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The research team, including Prof. Jennifer Bizon of the university’s Department of Neuroscience, explains that the type of memory responsible for the recall of day-to-day items is known as the “working memory.”

We use this memory for everyday activities, such as calculating the final bill after dining in a restaurant.

Prof. Bizon explains that in order to work out a 15% tip, for example, our brains must hold multiple pieces of information in mind for short periods, such as remembering the cost of dinner while calculating the amount of money needed for a tip. This process is central to working memory among other “higher” cognitive processes, according to Prof. Bizon.

In order for working memory to function properly, there must be the right balance of chemicals in the brain. But in their study, which was conducted in rats, the researchers found that high levels of an inhibitory brain neurotransmitter called GABA may disrupt working memory.

Normal levels of GABA in the brain help regulate cell activation, but increased levels can cause brain cells to become too active. The researchers say this causes brain activity similar to that found in people with schizophrenia or epilepsy.

To reach their findings, the research team assessed the memory of both young and old rats using a “Skinner box” – a box in which the rats had to remember the location of a lever for short periods of up to 30 seconds.

Both young and old rats were able to remember the location of the lever for very brief periods. But the researchers found that when these time periods grew, many of the older rats had difficulties remembering where the lever was, compared with the younger rats.

Further investigation revealed that older rats with no memory problems produced fewer GABA receptors, which led to lower levels of the chemical. However, older rats with memory problems produced more GABA receptors, meaning they had higher GABA levels.

The researchers then tested a drug on older rats that blocked GABA receptors and mimicked the lower number of receptors that some older rats without memory problems had naturally. This restored working memory to the same level as younger rats.

Although the drug is not yet ready for testing in humans, the researchers hope that further development could lead to the drug being used to treat seniors with mild cognitive decline.

Prof. Bizon adds:

Modern medicine has done a terrific job of keeping us alive for longer, and now we have to keep up and determine how to maximize the quality of life for seniors.

A key aspect of that is going to be developing strategies and therapies that can maintain and improve cognitive health.”

Previous research has investigated the use of other drugs to combat age-related cognitive disorders. Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting how a diabetes drug, called liraglutide, may reverse memory loss in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Other research found that an anti-cancer drug, already used for T cell lymphoma, reversed Alzheimer’s disease in mice.