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Can melatonin help prevent neuron damage associated with dementia?

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The Clear Thoughts Foundation (CTF), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit dedicated to fighting dementia, has awarded $200,000 to co-investigators as part of the CTF Consortium to begin preclinical research on how melatonin might affect dementia-related processes in the brain.

Most people associate melatonin with sleep. But melatonin may also play a role in protecting against neurodegeneration from dementia. Robert M. Friedlander, chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery in Pitt’s School of Medicine, and Amantha Thathiah, assistant professor of neurobiology, are first-time co-investigators on a project to connect the dots.

“Melatonin is a strong neuroprotective agent. It is doing a lot of things to stabilize the cell. But as we get old, we lose melatonin production,” said Friedlander.

Thathiah said the team will investigate whether the receptor that she studies and the melatonin receptor are involved in the survival of brain cells and whether melatonin treatment can increase the survival of brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of dementia.

One benefit of melatonin is that it’s accessible — "anyone can walk into a pharmacy and pick up a bottle” — but that also means it’s not as popular for pharmaceutical companies to fund melatonin research, said Friedlander. Support from the Clear Thoughts Foundation will push this collaborative research within the CTF Consortium forward.

“The funding will help us develop a stronger collaboration between our labs,” said Friedlander.

Thathiah is excited about the prospects that come from a consortium between basic and translational scientists studying a disease state like dementia: “All answers lead to better questions.”

Their ultimate goal is to develop sufficient preliminary data to launch a clinical trial of melatonin as a potential therapy to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other forms of dementia.

Oscar Lopez, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and another CTF Consortium researcher, plans to use the results of this work in the future to apply for clinical trial support from other organizations, including the CTF.