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Moving toward a Down syndrome drug

A new story in the New York Times Magazine describes the life's work of Alberto Costa, MD, a Colorado scientist who began studying Down syndrome treatments soon after his newborn daughter was diagnosed with the genetic disease in 1995. Costa is currently conducting a groundbreaking human trial of a drug treatment for the cognitive symptoms of Down syndrome – he's giving adults with the disease regular doses of the Alzheimer's drug memantine. Costa's earlier research showed the drug could improve learning and memory in a mouse model of Down syndrome. The fact that this research is happening at all is revolutionary, the story explains:

“This was a disorder for which it was believed there was no hope, no treatment, and people thought, Why waste your time?” says Craig C. Garner, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and co-director of the Center for Research and Treatment of Down Syndrome at Stanford University. “The last 10 years have seen a revolution in neuroscience, so that we now realize that the brain is amazingly plastic, very flexible, and systems can be repaired.”

And yet the work is not without controversy. For one thing, some parents are ambivalent about medicating their children with Down syndrome, fearing that drugs that boost intelligence might also change their children's personalities:

“Nobody would be against giving insulin for diabetes,” said Michael Bérubé, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University and author of the 1996 book “Life as We Know It,” published five years after his second son, Jamie, was born with the disorder. “But Down syndrome isn’t diabetes or smallpox or cholera. It’s milder and more variable and more complicated. I’d be very leery of messing with the attributes Jamie has. He’s pretty fabulous. At the same time, I’m not doctrinaire. If you’re talking about a medication that allows people to function in society and hold jobs, how can you be against that?”

The whole story is well worth reading.

Previously: Does Down syndrome need a "cure"? and More on the debate over "curing" Down syndrome.

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