A standard treatment for ailing hearts may also help heal ailing minds.

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center are investigating whether statins, commonly used to reduce high cholesterol, can help treat Alzheimer's disease. The center is recruiting participants for two national clinical trials using the statins Zocor and Lipitor.

"In population studies, people who took cholesterol medication had a lower occurrence of Alzheimer's compared to those who didn't take medication," said Rachelle Doody, MD, PhD, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and an associate professor of neurology. "Other studies indicate that high cholesterol may be associated with memory problems."

Researchers have also uncovered a connection between cholesterol and certain characteristics of Alzheimer's disease, such as amyloid plaques in the brain. Amyloid plaques are clumps of protein fragments that accumulate outside of cells. Scientists have not determined exactly what role plaques play in the disease process but believe they play a central role in Alzheimer's disease.

Baylor is one of about 40 sites in the United States participating in the Zocor study, which will enroll an estimated 400 subjects. About 10 to 15 patients will be enrolled at Baylor. Participants in the study will either receive the medication or a placebo during the 21-month trial and may continue taking their regular treatments for Alzheimer's disease including Aricept, Exelon, Reminyl, or Vitamin E. The study is sponsored by the Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study at the University of California-San Diego through a grant from the National Institute on Aging.

The Lipitor study will involve about 600 people at 60 institutions around the world. An estimated 20 patients will be enrolled at Baylor in the 20-month trial. The purpose of the study is to find out if Lipitor, when taken with donepezil (also known as Aricept) is useful for treating Alzheimer's disease. Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group sponsors the study.

"We are hopeful that the studies will help us understand whether lowering cholesterol may help improve memory in patients with Alzheimer's disease," Doody said.