Exploring the Potential of Obesity Drugs for Treating Dementia, Alcohol Addiction, and More: Recent Trials Show Promising Results

Investigating the Potential of Obesity Drugs for Treating Various Conditions

LONDON — Scientists are exploring whether obesity drugs, known as “miracle drugs,” could have applications in treating conditions such as dementia and alcohol addiction. Recent trials have shown promising results in using these drugs to address serious health issues.

Last month, Novo Nordisk released late-stage trial data indicating that its weight loss injection, Wegovy, led to significant improvements in heart failure-related symptoms for at-risk patients.

This breakthrough comes after the Danish pharmaceutical company published the results of its highly anticipated “SELECT” study, which demonstrated the drug’s effectiveness in reducing the risk of major cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes.

These findings are a significant milestone for Novo Nordisk as it aims to expand the perception of its product beyond being merely a “vanity drug.” Researchers are optimistic that these results could pave the way for other applications of these drugs.

“The results show that this medication can have health benefits above and beyond the short-term,” said Christian Hendershot, director of the clinical and translational addiction research program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Potential Treatment for Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Hendershot and other researchers are investigating whether the appetite-regulating mechanisms of weight loss drugs can be utilized to treat conditions such as alcohol and drug addiction.

Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy and Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro work by imitating a naturally occurring gut hormone that regulates appetite in the brain, leading to weight loss. These drugs rely on active ingredients called semaglutide and liraglutide, which belong to a group of drugs known as GLP-1 receptor agonists.

Studies conducted on animals have shown that GLP-1 medication effectively reduces drug and alcohol intake. Hendershot is now conducting trials on humans using Ozempic, the predecessor of Wegovy used for treating type 2 diabetes, to determine if these trends apply to humans as well.

If those two studies both readout … it’s hard to overstate the effect this will have on the field.

Kyle Simmons

Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at Oklahoma State University

“There is reason for optimism, particularly given the reports. Now it’s our job to do the research to validate those findings with clinical data,” said Hendershot. He expects to publish early findings next year.

If the broader applications of these drugs are proven to be effective, it could have significant implications. Early indications suggest that the drugs could reduce cravings for cocaine, amphetamines, and opioids, according to Kyle Simmons, a professor of pharmacology and physiology at Oklahoma State University.

Simmons is currently leading the Semaglutide Therapy for Alcohol Reduction (STAR) trial, a 12-week double-blind, placebo-controlled study. A similar study is also being conducted at the University of Baltimore.

“If those two studies both yield positive results, it’s hard to overstate the effect this will have on the field,” Simmons commented.

Potential Applications in Alzheimer’s Disease

Researchers are hopeful that these drugs could also be used to treat dementia and other cognitive disorders.

There is already evidence suggesting that GLP-1 drugs can reduce the accumulation of amyloid and tau proteins in the brain, which are believed to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia.

A trial is currently underway at the University of Oxford to test the drugs on patients at risk of developing dementia, specifically those with high levels of amyloid in the brain. The study aims to determine whether the drugs can reduce tau accumulation and brain inflammation.

“We want to see if these drugs are interfering with the core Alzheimer’s disease pathology,” said Ivan Koychev, a senior clinical researcher leading the study.

Furthermore, some researchers believe that these drugs could be effective in treating polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a disorder that causes irregular periods, hormone imbalances, and fertility issues.

“If women with PCOS experience positive outcomes in terms of regular periods and reduced excess hair growth despite modest weight loss, it could indicate the drugs’ broader therapeutic potential,” explained Harshal Deshmukh, a consultant endocrinologist and senior clinical lecturer at the University of Hull.

Implications for Reward Signaling

However, the potential use of weight loss drugs for various conditions may exacerbate existing challenges faced by patients, such as high costs and supply shortages.

Novo Nordisk recently extended restrictions on starter doses of Wegovy due to production constraints, while Eli Lilly warned of continued delays in Mounjaro output for similar reasons.

Although Hendershot’s study is currently unaffected by shortages, Simmons expressed concern about the issue.

Additionally, there have been reports of possible adverse effects of these drugs, including thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

Is this medication … turning down the gain on reward-signaling

Kyle Simmons

Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at Oklahoma State University

Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jorgensen stated that the number of suspected cases of adverse effects remains minimal considering the widespread use of the drug. “When you have medicine that’s used in millions of patients, and many different types of patients, then you can come across different events,” he explained.

However, Simmons believes that further research is necessary to understand the impact of these drugs on reward signaling in the brain. His own research involves monitoring participants’ reward responses in a virtual reality simulation.

“Is this medication, due to its effects on the mesolimbic dopamine system, simply reducing the intensity of reward signaling in a way that could promote anhedonia?” Simmons questioned. Anhedonia refers to a reduced ability to experience pleasure.

“If this drug becomes more widely used and starts to cause a general loss of interest in pleasure, it may not be beneficial for individuals with a history of major depressive disorder,” he added.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in the U.S. at 988 or the Samaritans in the U.K. at 116 123.

Brice Foster
With over a decade of experience, Brice Foster is an accomplished journalist and digital media expert. In addition to his Master's in Digital Media from UC Berkeley, he also holds a Bachelor's in Journalism from USC. Brice has spent the past five years writing for WS News Publishers on a variety of topics, including technology, business, and international affairs.

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