An Alzheimer's disease drug called memantine may also benefit people with Down syndrome, according to a new study.

University of Colorado researchers conducted a small trial with 38 young adults and teenagers with Down syndrome. Over 16 weeks, half of the patients were given memantine, while the others received a placebo.

Memantine, sold under the brand name Namenda, works by binding to certain brain cell receptors in order to block the activity of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which has been shown to kill nerve cells at high levels. Previous studies with mice have shown that memantine can improve memory and learning deficits associated with Down Syndrome.

In the human trial, the effects weren't sweeping; there wasn't much improvement in most measures of cognitive ability amongst patients taking the drug. However, the patients that took memantine did improve in one specific area: verbal episodic memory, which relates to autobiographical events.

Researchers often measure verbal episodic memory function by presenting patients with a list of words and then asking them to remember those words later.

People who took the medicine and memorized long lists of words did significantly better than those who took the placebo, lead researcher Alberto Costa said in a statement Tuesday. This is a first step in a longer quest to see how we can improve the quality of life for those with Down syndrome.

Costa wants to do a follow-up study with a larger group. He also wants to see if memantine can help younger children with Down syndrome, since their brains are still developing rapidly.

It's no surprise that an Alzheimer's drug would find success in Down Syndrome patients. The two conditions are fairly similar and closely linked. Most, if not all, people with Down syndrome will eventually develop Alzheimer's by their mid-30s, according to Costa.

Our study is a significant and hopeful sign that certain drugs can enhance the intellectual capacity of those with Down syndrome, Costa said. For more than 30 years we have been unable to impact cognition in Down syndrome. Now it appears that we may be able to.

SOURCE: Boada et al. Antagonism of NMDA receptors as a potential treatment for Down syndrome: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Trans Psych 2: e141, 2012.