The treatment, which has so far been tried in only four patients, raises questions about the propriety of using drugs to treat disability. Parents of Down's syndrome children who elected for cosmetic surgery for their offspring to disguise the almond eyes and flattened nose associated with the condition have been accused of encouraging discrimination.
The four patients, aged from 24 to 67, were treated with the drug Aricept for an average of nine months. Aricept was launched in Britain a couple of years ago as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease and has been shown to delay the cognitive decline associated with the disease by about six months.
Down's syndrome is caused by a disorder of the chromosomes that cannot be corrected. The effects, especially in older people, are similar to dementia and two of the four patients already had early signs. However, all four showed improvement in communication, attention span and mood with use of the drug. Beneficial effects were seen within the first three months of treatment.
The researchers, from Duke University Medical School in North Carolina, United States, who report their findings in The Lancet, admit their study is too small to justify widespread treatment of Down's syndrome with Aricept - Eisai-Pfizer's brand-name version of donepezil. But they say the findings justify a larger trial.
There are about 30,000 people with Down's syndrome in Britain and there is widespread opposition to measures to disguise its presence. However, Carol Boys, director of the Down's Syndrome Association, said a drug that boosted functioning would be worth trying.
"The key issue is whether people consent to it. So long as people give consent, and these are adults we are talking about, we would have no objection."
When some families of Down's children chose cosmetic surgery it provoked an outcry. However, Ms Boys said that the issue of a new drug treatment was quite different. "If it improves the outcome for Down's syndrome people, that is quite different from disguising a disability."
Bert Massy, director of the Royal Association of Disability and Rehabilitation, said: "Disability is a normal part of humanity and the way to cope is to be proud of your disability and not to seek cures, because most don't work and most of the problems suffered by disabled people are the result of the attitudes of society.
"On the other hand, the way to enjoy life is to have as much autonomy as possible. Nobody should be forced to take the treatment if they don't want to but some will like it if it improves their functioning."Reuse content