The international science community is buzzing with excitement as results of a breakthrough study have shown that consuming a daily vitamin-enriched drink could help improve memory, reduce brain shrinkage and slow the progression of early Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
Tel Aviv University neurobiologist Daniel Michaelson, who has been studying the effects of diet on AD in animal models for nearly two decades, was one of 19 members of the European LipiDiDiet Consortium to take part in the EU-funded dementia trial involving patients with very early AD.
It was the first randomized clinical trial in the world to investigate the effects of a nutritional intervention in these “pre-dementia” patients.
“The results of the study were very exciting. That the shrinkage of the brain was halted by this treatment is amazing,” Michaelson tells ISRAEL21c.
“To think that by simply taking a ‘milkshake’ today, you can slow down the shrinkage of the brain, which is what this study has shown, I think it’s fantastic.”
That “milkshake” is Souvenaid, costing just $4 for a daily dose. Its nutrients include omega-3 fatty acids, choline, uridine monophosphate, phospholipids, antioxidants and B vitamins.
The drink, also referred to as Fortasyn Connect, is already approved and available for established mild AD patients, but this was the first time it was shown that Souvenaid can benefit people with very early signs of the devastating disease that affects 47 million people.
The multicenter randomized, controlled, double-blind study, involving 311 patients, was presented at the Advances in Alzheimer’s Therapy international congress in Athens in March.
Results showed that in people with the pre-dementia stage of AD, drinking the Souvenaid cocktail on a daily basis helped reduce brain shrinkage – particularly in the hippocampus, where short-term memories are stored for long-term retrieval. And for those who started the intervention early and consumed the drink regularly, it helped conserve memory and the ability to think and perform everyday tasks.
“Today’s results are extremely valuable as they bring us closer to understanding the impact of nutritional interventions on prodromal [early-stage] AD which we are now better at diagnosing but unable to treat due to a lack of approved pharmaceutical options,” said Prof. Hilkka Soininen, a neurologist at the University of Eastern Finland, who headed the clinical trial as part of the LipiDiDiet project.
Finding the right mix
Michaelson tells ISRAEL21c that he and the other members of the European LipiDiDiet Consortium have been collaborating for years on research into the effects of nutrition on disease.
“This seed was planted by many people. The whole idea that a diet may be helpful is not a novel idea; it’s been known from the times of the Greeks. The main success here is to have a specific cocktail that works,” Michaelson tells ISRAEL21c.
“We have known for a while that diet can reduce the risk of developing dementia. Indeed, certain nutrients have been found to have a neuroprotective effect on the brain,” said project coordinator Tobias Hartmann of Saarland University Germany, with whom Michaelson has collaborated for some 15 years.
“However, translating this into an effective intervention hasn’t been easy because single nutrients simply aren’t powerful enough to fight a disease like Alzheimer’s alone. Today’s clinical trial results have shown that the key is combining certain nutrients, in order to increase their effect,” said Hartmann.
Michaelson’s lab at Tel Aviv University unravels the basic cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration in AD and developing novel therapeutic approaches to counteract them. His research focuses on apolipoprotein E4 (apoE4), the most prevalent genetic risk factor of the disease.
In 2008, Michaelson published a research paper showing how foods high in omega-3 oils significantly reduce the negative effects of the apoE4 gene.
For the current project, he tested different diets on animal models of apoE4 to find what caused the most beneficial response.
Michaelson’s conclusions were then passed on to the scientists involved in the human clinical trial segment of the project.
The trial showed that the vitamin cocktail intervention helped pre-dementia patients carry out everyday tasks such as paying bills or finding their way around.
Nutrition and prevention
The scientists say the results represent a real step forward for patients with very early signs of AD in the absence of effective drug options, especially for those who start the intervention early.
“Indeed those patients who have lost the least cognitive function have the most to gain,” said Hartmann.
While Souvenaid did prove promising for dementia prevention, the study did not find it afforded a significant benefit in broad cognitive function. Hartmann explained that this was likely because the cognitive decline over the study period was less than originally expected when the study was designed back in 2007.
Yet overall, the researchers say the clinical results are positive and they’re already looking forward.
Michaelson tells ISRAEL21c that there are two paths ahead: “Drive this forward and have it implemented. And secondly, take this approach to other diseases. To think of other degenerative disease is the way to go.”
The clinical trial was part of a large ongoing European Commission project to explore the therapeutic and preventative impact of nutrition on neuronal and cognitive performance in ageing, AD and vascular dementia.
Michaelson says that it’s time to elevate the role of prevention and diet.
“These elements are beginning to give fruits whereas the billions of dollars that go into therapy have not yet delivered what they’re supposed to. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t keep trying but right now the pendulum is such that nutrition and prevention are beginning to be a very respectable part of the field which they have not been before.”