MIT nutrient mixture improves memory in early Alzheimer’s

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 10:04 AM

An MIT clinical trial of an Alzheimer’s disease treatment has found that the nutrient cocktail can improve memory in patients with early Alzheimer’s. The results confirm and expand the findings of an earlier trial of the nutritional supplement, which is designed to promote new connections between brain cells.

Alzheimer’s patients gradually lose those connections, known as synapses, leading to memory loss and other cognitive impairments. The supplement mixture, known as Souvenaid, appears to stimulate growth of new synapses, according to Richard Wurtman, a professor emeritus of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT who developed the nutrient mixture.

“You want to improve the numbers of synapses, not by slowing their degradation—though of course you’d love to do that too—but rather by increasing the formation of the synapses,” Wurtman explained.

With that goal, Wurtman developed a mixture of three naturally occurring dietary compounds: choline, uridine and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA. These nutrients are precursors to the lipid molecules that, along with specific proteins, make up brain-cell membranes, which form synapses. To be effective, all three precursors must be administered together.

The study, performed in several European countries, enrolled 259 patients for six months. Patients, whether receiving Souvenaid or a placebo beverage, improved their verbal-memory performance for the first three months, but the placebo patients deteriorated during the following three months, while the Souvenaid patients continued to improve. Patients showed a very high compliance rate; about 97% of the patients followed the regimen throughout the study, and no serious side effects were seen.

Researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure how patients’ brain-activity patterns changed throughout the study. They found that as the trial went on, the brains of patients receiving the supplements started to shift from patterns typical of dementia to more normal patterns. Because EEG patterns reflect synaptic activity, this suggests that synaptic function increased following treatment, according to the researchers.

A two-year trial involving patients who don’t have Alzheimer’s, but who are starting to show mild cognitive impairment, is now underway. If the drink seems to help, it could be used in people who test positive for very early signs of Alzheimer’s, before symptoms appear, Wurtman said. Such tests, which include PET scanning of the hippocampus, are now rarely done because there are not any significantly helpful Alzheimer’s treatments available.

MIT has patented the mixture of nutrients used in the study, and Nutricia—the trial’s sponsor and a specialized health care division of food company Danone—holds the exclusive license on the patent. Plans for commercial release of the supplement are not finalized, but it will likely be available in Europe first.

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