This common medicine could have lasting impact on your brain

New study suggests long-term use of anxiety medication may alter the brain, potentially increasing dementia risk. Researchers aim for safer alternatives.

common drug dementia anxiety diazepam valium
© Laurynas Mereckas / UNPLASH
common drug dementia anxiety diazepam valium

A drug that is commonly prescribed in the UK, could affect the brains of users later in life, a new study suggests. Millions of Britsare prescribed anti-anxiety medication to manage overwhelming feelings or to sleep better at night, but the pills have been found to impact the brain’s microglial cells, The Sun reports.

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The brain under threat

The findings were made by scientists at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANTSO), They found that the long term use of anti-anxiety medication could interfere with the dendritic spines - a part of the brain’s neurons that help electrify and activate cells.

Researchers conclude that long term use of anxiety medication could increase the risk of developing dementia. They are however not certain as to how this happens. Professor Richard Banati is with the team of researchers and told Neuroscience News:

The knowledge gained in this work by a large international team helps in the development of anti-anxiety drugs without such detrimental cognitive effects. The specific experiment looked closely into how the long-term use of anti-anxiety drugs, such as diazepam, can alter the complex wiring of the brain.

More research is needed

Although quite confident about the contribution of this study - conducted on mice - to knowledge on the use of these drugs, the researchers say the effects may not be the same in humans.

The drug used in the animal trial was diazepam, aka Valium which is used for the treatment of anxiety, alcohol withdrawal and seizure. The study reveal that the drug affected the brain in a way that could result in users experiencing severe fatigue and later on, dementia. The research, published in the journal of Nature Neuroscience concluded:

In addition to tolerance development and abuse liability, their chronic use may cause cognitive impairment and increase the risk for dementia. However, the mechanism by which benzodiazepines might contribute to persistent cognitive decline remains unknown.

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The Sun: Drugs prescribed to millions of Brits ‘can pose a threat to your brain’

Neuroscience News: Research Sheds Light on Mechanism by Which Long-Term Anti-Anxiety Drug Use Affects the Brain

Nature Neuroscience: Long-term diazepam treatment enhances microglial spine engulfment and impairs cognitive performance via the mitochondrial 18 kDa translocator protein (TSPO)

Social prescribing: What is it, and how does it impact mental health? Social prescribing: What is it, and how does it impact mental health?