March 13, 2009 (Prague, Czech Republic) — European scientists are taking research into the effect of lipids on the aging brain a step further. They reported on the launch of a new study of a lipid supplement on patients with early cognitive problems during the 9th International Conference on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases.
The study, part of the Therapeutic and Preventive Impact of Nutritional Lipids on Neuronal and Cognitive Performance in Aging, Alzheimer's Disease, and Vascular Dementia (LipiDiDiet) research project, will follow 300 patients with early signs of cognitive impairment over the course of 2 years. Study subjects will regularly take either a liquid supplement that contains a polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or placebo, according to Tobias Hartmann, PhD, project coordinator, from the Center for Molecular Biology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
Diet has already been associated with the development of cardiovascular disease. The LipiDiDiet project is investigating a possible link to Alzheimer's disease (AD).
Launched in 2008 and funded by the European Union (EU), the project includes scientists from the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. They represent an array of specialties, including molecular biology, neurobiology, lipid metabolism, physiology, and behavioral sciences.
The project has already shown that some lipids, especially those containing omega-3 fatty acids, can delay the progression of AD. However, scientists still do not fully understand the basic cellular principles underlying the link between lipids and AD.
Science has already made some progress. Dr. Hartmann's own studies have shown that regulation of cholesterol and another fat involves amyloid precursor protein (APP), which is found in the brain as well as in the heart, kidneys, and lungs.
Ongoing research continues to shed light on the role of beta amyloid, which is toxic when overproduced but also has a role in regulating cellular lipid levels. Research suggests that it may be possible to reduce the risk for AD by altering these regulatory cycles and therefore beta-amyloid production.
While drugs such as lipid- and cholesterol-lowering agents may change levels of beta amyloid, nondrug approaches — including following a diet high in certain lipids — are also promising. This includes consuming a diet rich in omega fatty acids.
The research seems to indicate that the effect of lipids on AD might be limited to patients at a very early stage of the disease. The newly announced study, which includes patients who have some cognitive impairment but have not developed clinical AD, will try to bear that out, said Dr. Hartmann.
The DHA fats being studied are beneficial because they tend to "push out the bad fats" from the body, Dr. Hartmann told Medscape Psychiatry. "They do a lot of things in the brain; they're neuroprotective and they reduce inflammation and amyloid burden — all these things taken together give us hope that they will have an effect on AD."
The lipid-enhanced supplement might do more than just delay AD onset. "Patients could fare even better than that because we're treating them very early on," said Dr. Hartmann. "The best possible outcome is that they will come out of the study with full cognitive performance."
At the very least, he added, investigators anticipate the cognitive condition of the study subjects to remain unchanged for as long as they are treated. Patients in the study are volunteers from Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany.
AD/PD 2009: 9th International Conference on Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's Disease: European Union–sponsored symposium. Presented March 11, 2009