Scientists at Edinburgh University have discovered that the experimental compound UOE1961 can block enzymes that damage the hippocampus of ageing mice.
The researchers hope the class of drugs may be used to halt age-related damage of the brain in elderly people.
What did the study examine?
Previous research has linked decline in spatial memory to high levels of glucocorticoids in the brain. An enzyme called 11beta-HSD1 activates these hormones and could act as a therapeutic target.
The team wanted to test whether cutting levels of glucocorticoids in mice brains could halt or even reverse memory decline.
In the study, researchers bred mice that lacked the enzyme 11beta-HSD1. When the mice grew old, they were better able to recall the layout of a maze than old normal mice.
Researchers then administered the drug UOE1961 to block the enzyme in old normal mice. They found that treated mice experienced improved memory in just 10 days.
Professor Brian Walker said: 'These results provide proof-of-concept that this class of drugs could be useful in treating age-related decline in memory.'
Could this lead to new treatment?
The team remains hopeful the new drug can be effective in humans as well.
Professor Walker said: 'The next step is to conduct further studies with our preclinical candidate to prove that the compound is safe to take into clinical trials.'
The Wellcome Trust, which funded the research, said development of drugs to target such enzymes was a long-held goal of medicine. Rick Davis, a researcher at the trust, said: 'Advancing this compound towards clinical trials takes us a step closer to finding a drug that could have far reaching implications.'
Nevertheless, the authors said studies must first explore the normal role of 11beta-HSD1 in the forebrain. It is thought glucocorticoids may help consolidate emotional experiences.
Research is underway to identify the role of 11beta-HSD1 in this process.