Large daily doses of B vitamins may protect vulnerable populations from the brain shrinkage and memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study conducted by researchers from Oxford University and published in the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May 2013.
The new findings came from a reanalysis of data collected in 2010 from 271 older adults suffering from mild cognitive impairment, a form of memory loss considered a potential precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Although the brain naturally shrinks as we get older (about 0.5% per year), in people with mild cognitive impairment this shrinkage takes place twice as fast as usual. In Alzheimer’s patients, shrinkage takes place four times faster than usual.
The researchers assigned participants to take either a placebo pill or a high daily dose of three B vitamins, folic acid (0.8mg), vitamin B6 (20mg) and vitamin B12 (0.5mg). Over the course of two years they found that memory loss halted in those who took the B vitamins, but not in those who took the placebo. The vitamins also slowed brain shrinkage by 50% compared to the placebo, but only in patients who previously had higher than normal blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine.
In healthy humans, homocysteine levels are low because the amino acid is quickly transformed into other substances, including the memory-regulating chemical acetylcholine. Researchers have long known that in Alzheimer’s patients, homocysteine, levels tend to be high and acetylcholine levels tend to low. Because B vitamins appear to play a role in converting homocysteine into acetylcholine, researchers had wondered if the vitamins might help stem the development of Alzheimer’s.
Researchers remain unsure whether it’s high levels of homocysteine, low levels of acetylcholine, or some other factor that leads to the development of Alzheimer’s. What ever the case, the 2010 study was the first time researchers could directly show that increasing B vitamin levels might have a clinical effect.
“B vitamins lower homocysteine, which directly leads to a decrease in grey matter atrophy (complete or partial wasting of the grey matter in your brain), thereby slowing cognitive decline,” the researchers wrote.
One of the weaknesses of the original analysis, however, was that researchers could not prove that the observed improvements in memory were related to the decreased rate in brain shrinkage. In a new study, researchers conducted a more advanced analysis of the original data and found that the effect of the B vitamins was actually much greater than they had initially thought: Among those taking the vitamins, brain shrinkage was reduced by an astonishing 90%, not just 50%.
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By David Gutierrez