DHEA, a supplement version of a naturally occurring hormone, appears to do little if anything for people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, according to a preliminary study released this week.
The steroid-like supplement DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is often used as a muscle builder by body builders and has been touted as an anti-aging remedy -- although the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on companies that have made such claims. The artificial hormone has been found to be helpful for some patients with the autoimmune disease lupus.
While the function of DHEA in the brain remains unclear, there has been increasing interest among scientists and the public about whether the hormone -- which peaks during a person's 20s -- plays a role in sustaining normal mental abilities. In addition, preliminary studies in mice have suggested that DHEA may boost memory.
But researchers at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine report that DHEA "did not significantly improve" mental function in a small group of patients with Alzheimer's disease. In their investigation, the team of researchers evaluated the mental abilities of 28 men and women with Alzheimer's disease who took 50 milligrams of DHEA twice per day and similar group of 30 individuals who took a placebo. All of the participants underwent mental ability tests prior to the study and again at three and six months.
Along the way, many of the participants dropped out of the study for various reasons. The authors note in their report that some of the patients may have opted for "other effective and well tolerated" medications. In the end, 19 people in the DHEA group and 14 in the control group finished the study. Although a small improvement in mental functioning was seen after three months in patients given DHEA compared to those in the control (placebo) group, the finding was not statistically significant. In other words, this finding may have been due to chance.
Those taking the hormone supplement were twice as likely than those taking a placebo to report feelings of confusion, agitation and anxiety, and that more patients dropped out of the placebo arm than the DHEA arm because of adverse effects.
It remains to be determined in larger scale studies if DHEA has a useful role in treating symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
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