Scientists have developed a small peptide that they say can reverse some of the cognitive repercussions of neurodegenerative and potentially trauma-related brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, by increasing synaptogenesis. The peptide, called dihexa, is a stabilized derivative of angiotensin IV (AngIV), a peptide that, together with some of its analogs, is recognized as a precognitive agent that could feasibly be used as a treatment for neurodegenerative diseases, but in its native form it can’t cross the blood-brain barrier and isn’t stable enough to have any utility in a clinical setting.

Washington State University’s Joseph W. Harding, Ph.D., Alene T. McCoy, Ph.D., and colleagues based their development on prior work demonstrating that the three terminal amino acids of AngIV and its analog Norleucine1-angiotensin IV (Nle1-AngIV) are central to the precognitive activities of the peptides. The team thus set out to develop much smaller, more stable derivatives of Nle1-AngIV that retained the active structure but could be administered orally and cross the blood-brain barrier.

The resulting lead compound, dihexia (N-hexanoic-Tyr-Ile-(6) aminohexanoic amide) not only fulfilled these requirements, but proved to be active at picomolar concentrations, and led to dramatic improvements in the cognitive abilities of a scopolamine-treated rat model of learning deficits, and also aged Sprague-Dawley rats. Scopolamine-treated rats are a well-used model of spatial memory dysfunction that demonstrate memory-related problems mirroring those of early-to-middle-stage Alzheimer’s disease patients, but in these animals cognitive impairments are acutely induced. In contrast, aged Sprague-Dawley rats are a more physiologically relevant model of dementia.

Importantly, the treatment was effective whether the animals received it directly into the brain, via injection, or orally. Further analyses indicated that dihexia’s precognitive activity was associated with a drug-induced stimulation of dendritic spinogenesis in the hippocampal brain region, and that the newly formed dendritic spins were creating functional synapses. Encouragingly, dihexia was even more potent than brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth-promoting protein that is used to create neuronal connections, but which hasn’t yet been developed for therapeutic use.

“At its core dementia results from a combination of diminished synaptic connectivity among neurons and neuronal death in the entorhinal cortex, hippocampus, and neocortex,” the researchers note in their published paper in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. However, previous attempts to develop protein neurotrophic factors as therapeutics has been limited by their inability to cross the blood-brain barrier, and the need to manufacture such agents by recombinant methods, which is costly. “The development of dihexa has seemingly overcome these impediments by virtue of its oral activity, demonstrated pro-cognitive/anti-dementia activity, and anticipated low manufacturing costs.”

Drs. Harding and McCoy et al describe their development of dihexia, and rodent studies, in a paper titled “Evaluation of Metabolically Stabilized Angiotensin IV Analogs as Pro-Cognitive/Anti-Dementia Agents.”

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