JAN 30, 2017 05:06 AM PST

Vitamin A and Alzheimer's: Is There a Link?

According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is an irreversible, progressive, neurodegenerative disease that slowly destroys the memory banks of the brain and causes significant cognitive decline. As the disease progresses some patients have difficulty remembering to put clothes on properly, how to get to and from familiar places or make their own meals Symptoms start to appear, on average, when a person hits their mid 60s but first onset can be earlier. When symptoms appear later, many brush forgetfulness and confusion as normal age related problems. It’s estimated that about 5 million Americans currently have AD. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the US, but trends on incidence are moving upwards and some predict it could soon move up to 3rd, just behind cancer and heart disease among older Americans. It is the most common cause of dementia among those over 50. There is no cure.

There is much debate about the cause. Most researchers agree that beta amyloid plaques in the brain are significant in the development of AD related dementia. Genetics are also involved and there have been connections made to diet, vascular health, lifestyle habits and exposure to pollutants. Given all that is involved, it’s crucial for researchers to learn as much as possible about the disease and do whatever they can to advance the science behind it towards effective treatment.

To that end, new research from the University of British Columbia points to certain biochemical reactions that cause Alzheimer’s disease that begin in the womb or just after birth if a fetus or newborn does not get enough vitamin A. The study is among the few research projects to suggest a beginning so early. The research, based on studies of genetically-engineered mice, even goes so far as to suggest that newborns who have low levels of Vitamin A could be given supplements to reduce the damage done by low levels during gestation. Dr. Weihong Song, a professor of psychiatry and Canada Research Chair in Alzheimer’s Disease, explained, “Our study clearly shows that marginal deficiency of vitamin A, even as early as in pregnancy, has a detrimental effect on brain development and has long-lasting effect that may facilitate Alzheimer’s disease in later life.”

There are earlier studies that link Vitamin A levels to cognitive function. Dr. Song at UBC collaborated with Dr. Tingyu Li and others at Children’s Hospital of Chongqing Medical University to complete the study. The research sought to show that the damage can start in the womb and the results suggest just that. Mice that were deprived of Vitamin A in the womb, but given a proper diet as pups, still showed cognitive delays worse than those mice with proper levels in utero, but deprivation as pups. Even in mice that had only a slight deficiency of Vitamin A, they found that amyloid plaques in the brain were increased.

When trying to reverse the damage, the study showed some possibility for cognitive function to rebound. Mice deprived during gestation but given supplements at birth did better than the mice who were equally deficient in utero but not given supplements. The study, which was published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, also included evidence from the team in China on human elderly participants. 330 volunteers took part in the study. Among them, 75% of those with mild to significant vitamin A deficiency had some form of cognitive impairment. Only 47% of elderly study volunteers with normal vitamin A levels showed cognitive impairments. The video below explains more about the study, check it out.

Sources: University of British Columbia, National Institute on Aging, Acta Neuropathologica

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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