Years before a person is disabled by Alzheimer's disease, the memory problems of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) start causing difficulty in daily life. Research published in May in Neuron suggests that a drug currently used for epilepsy might improve sufferers' cognition—and perhaps even slow the progression of the disease—by quieting activity in the hippocampus.

Past research has found that people with MCI have an overactive hippocampus, the brain region associated with memory function. Whether this activity causes memory impairment or is the brain's way of compensating has been a matter of debate, but the new work suggests that the increased activity is indeed the culprit behind memory loss.

In the study, researchers gave 17 people with MCI an antiepilepsy drug called levetiracetam. “There had been studies showing that this drug was particularly effective in this piece of the brain,” explains Michela Gallagher of Johns Hopkins University, who led the study. The drug reduced activity in the patients' hippocampus and, more important, improved their performance on a memory test.

Gallagher thinks that the drug might even slow or stop the decline into Alzheimer's. Higher levels of neural activity are linked to a faster buildup of amyloid-beta protein, which is the hallmark “plaque” of Alzheimer's pathology. If levetiracetam can suppress hippocampal activity, it might slow plaque deposition and thus slow the disease's progression—a hypothesis that Gallagher is eager to test next.