Persons suffering from mild to moderate symptoms of Alzheimer's disease are being sought for a University of Utah School of Medicine study of a drug that could improve memory function.

Investigators emphasize that the highly experimental medication has never before been rigorously tested for its effect on memory function in humans. They caution Alzheimer's patients and their family against undue hope in the treatment of dementia.The study, a cooperative effort of the department of neurology and the division of human development and aging in the departments of internal medicine and pediatrics, is one of 10 being launched at medical centers throughout the United States to gauge the efficacy of Milacemide, manufactured by G.D. Searle & Co.

The drug's effectiveness in animal models suggests that it may show promise for human use.

"Alzheimer's is a degenerative brain disease that usually afflicts people in middle or old age," said Dr. Fumisuke Matsuo, associate professor neurology. He and Dr. James S. Wood, assistant professor of internal medicine, are principal investigators on the clinical trials.

The frustration they face is that medical scientists still do not know what triggers the illness. Nor do they know how to cure or prevent it.

"So far, the treatment we have for Alzheimer's is only palliative; we're just trying to help people function a little longer," Matsuo said. "No medications have stopped the progress of the disease or helped people convincingly improve their performance."

Kathy King, clinical research coordinator of the drug trials, will screen potential candidates for the study. Twenty or 30 will be selected.

"Patients with a mild form of the disease may have some difficulty remembering familiar words or names, may have misplaced a valuable possession or gotten lost en route to an unfamiliar location," King said. "Friends, family and co-workers are aware of the person's declining performance, although the patient may deny it."

As the organic dementia progresses, patients exhibit decreased knowledge of current events, memory lapses about their personal history and decreased ability to concentrate, travel and handle finances.

King said that moderately affected patients still are oriented to time and person and recognize familiar faces, but their inability to perform complex tasks causes them to avoid many social situations and they become very withdrawn.

Potential volunteers for the drug study are likely to be 50 or older, although they may have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's in their 40s.

"They're still verbal and they're still at home, although they might not be employable," she said. "In addition to the medication - and possibly of equal benefit to these patients - is the complete medical, neurological and psychological evaluation they will receive."

King said it's important that volunteers for the study be otherwise healthy and not taking a lot of medications. They must have a responsible family member or care-giver who will accompany the patient on all visits to the clinic and ensure that he or she takes as medication as prescribed.

Patients accepted into the study will visit the U. Hospital weekly for 14 weeks. For 12 of those weeks their medication will be monitored; the final two sessions will consist of follow-up medical and psychological evaluations.

For more information, call King at 581-2279.