Ibuprofen is a popular painkiller, which works wonders to reduce inflammation in chronic conditions like arthritis and more discrete hurts brought about by surgery. Now researchers are hoping to add another condition to that list — Parkinson’s disease.
Based on a study of more than 136,000 healthy men and women, scientists report Wednesday in the journal Neurology that those taking ibuprofen regularly over six years lowered their risk of developing Parkinson’s disease by 38%, compared with people taking other painkillers.
It’s not the first study to link ibupuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to a lower risk of Parkinson’s. Previous studies revealed that as a class, NSAIDs reduced the risk of the neurodegenerative disease by about 15%. The results piqued the interest of the study’s primary investigator, Dr. Alberto Ascherio, an epidemiologist at Harvard School of Public Health, who wondered if there were certain NSAIDs that worked better than others in preventing the tremors and muscle weakness typical of the disease. Because most of the participants in the earlier study used ibuprofen, he designed an analysis to tease out any effect that class, which includes Advil and Motrin, might have.
Interestingly, the beneficial effect appeared to be unique to ibuprofen; neither aspirin nor the other NSAIDs seemed to have any impact on the development of Parkinson’s. That suggests that while all of these painkillers work by reducing inflammation, ibuprofen may rely on a specific pathway that also impacts on the nerves affected by Parkinson’s.
“This paper basically confirms the idea that the [inflammatory] pathway is a potentially relevant pathway in Parkinson’s,” says Brian Fiske, director of research programs at the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which funds research on Parkinson’s disease. Ascherio, whose work has been funded by the Foundation in the past, is hoping the next test of this idea will be among early Parkinson’s patients. If some are given ibuprofen on a regular basis, and others are not, researchers will be able to confirm whether or not the drug is useful in preventing the disease.
That trial, as well as others like it, will need to answer some important questions, not only about the safety of long term ibuprofen use, but about dosage — regular high doses can cause serious gastrointestinal disorders and bleeding in the intestines. How long do patients have to take ibuprofen to experience the benefit? Does the drug work only if it’s taken in the few months leading up to the first signs of Parkinson’s? Ascherio was not able to analyze how much ibuprofen the participants in the trial were taking, but he still believes that the data are robust enough to justify further study. “I would rank ibuprofen at the top of the list, as among the top few candidates for a randomized clinical trial,” he says. Such a study would certainly answer some critical questions about whether an over-the-counter medication could provide the answer to treating a debilitating, complex neural disorder.