Metformin, a long-time diabetes drug, has been found to have an unexpected benefit: It promotes the growth of new brain cells.
The discovery, reported by the University of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, may provide a new line of therapy to repair brain damage, injuries and illnesses by spurring brain cell growth.
Lead researcher Freda Miller noted metformin is already widely used and considered safe, so its use can easily be expanded to help brain-damaged patients. Prior studies by Miller's team identified how stem cells grow into mature brain cells – a process that closely parallels the metabolic effects of the drug metformin in liver cells.
"We put two and two together," Miller said. If metformin activates the process in the liver, they reasoned, it could also do the same thing for stem cells in the brain to encourage brain repair.
The new study involved both human cells and those of mice.
While it is unclear whether metformin be a brain booster for those who are now taking it, researchers said there is some evidence it may have cognitive benefits for people with Alzheimer's disease by enhancing brain repair.
Miller said researchers will not study whether metformin can help repair the brains of people with brain injuries due to trauma or radiation therapies for cancer.