The drug minoxidil, which is normally used for slowing balding and stimulating hair growth, may also help arteries become more youthful. A study published in American Journal of Physiology — Heart and Circulatory Physiology found that minoxidil, which is sold under the brand name Rogaine, makes stiff vessels more flexible and improves blood flow to vital organs like the brain.
Organs in young animals are flexible because they contain a protein called elastin. But elastin is produced only during development, and it is slowly lost with aging. As elastin is lost, arteries stiffen.
Stiff arteries contribute to high blood pressure. They also significantly increase the risk of sudden death, stroke, myocardial infarction and cognitive decline. Most treatments try to reduce high blood pressure, but until now, no medication has been shown to increase the development of elastin in mature human tissue.
“We know that genetic conditions, such as Williams-Beuren Syndrome (WS) and supravalvar aortic stenosis (SVAS), lead to abnormally low levels of elastin in developing arteries,” said co-author Dr. Michael “Mish” Shoykhet, “As a result, children with WS or SVAS have stiff, narrow arteries and high blood pressure. Like older adults, they are also at increased risk of sudden death and stroke.”
Although best known for its ability to improve hair growth when used on the skin, a different formulation of minoxidil is sometimes prescribed orally for high blood pressure that has not responded to other medications. Earlier studies have suggested that minoxidil may increase elastin even in mature tissues.
Researchers used animal models of hypertension and chronic vascular stiffness associated with WS and SVAS. They used ultrasound imaging and magnetic resonance imaging to measure the impact of minoxidil on vessels, arteries, cerebral blood flow, and gene expression.
The treatment group in the study received a daily dose of 20 milligrams of minoxidil per kilogram of body weight through their drinking water, from the time they were weaned to 3 months of age. A second treatment group also received minoxidil for three months but was analyzed at 4 months of age, one month after the drug was discontinued. For the gene expression experiments, the preclinical models received minoxidil for two weeks.
“Minoxidil not only lowered blood pressure, but also increased arterial diameter and restored carotid and cerebral blood flow. Minoxidil also reduced functional arterial stiffness and increased arterial elastin content,” Shoykhet said.
“Equally important, these beneficial changes persisted weeks after the drug was no longer in the bloodstream. The sustained improvements and the increased elastin gene expression suggest that minoxidil treatment may help remodel stiff arteries. Such remodeling may benefit humans whose elastin insufficiency is due to either advanced age or genetic conditions,” he said.
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