MIT researchers say they have created a nutritional supplement that apparently can improve memory in patients with early Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by a loss of connection between nerve cells. The site where nerve cells connect together is called a synapse, with the new medication conceptually stimulating the growth of new synapses.
The supplement mixture, known as Souvenaid, appears to stimulate growth of new synapses, says Richard Wurtman, a professor emeritus of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT who invented 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 says.
Wurtman says the supplement is composed of a mixture of three naturally occurring dietary compounds: choline, uridine and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.
Choline can be found in meats, nuts and eggs, and omega-3 fatty acids are found in a variety of sources, including fish, eggs, flaxseed and meat from grass-fed animals. Uridine is produced by the liver and kidney, and is present in some foods as a component of RNA.
Biochemically the 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.
Researchers have published the findings of an European clinical trial of the substance in the online edition of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
The new findings are encouraging because very few clinical trials have produced consistent improvement in Alzheimer’s patients, says Jeffrey Cummings, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.
“Memory loss is the central characteristic of Alzheimer’s, so something that improves memory would be of great interest,” says Cummings, who was not part of the research team.
Plans for commercial release of the supplement are not finalized, according to Nutricia, the company testing and marketing Souvenaid, but it will likely be available in Europe first.
Wurtman has been investigating the concept to target synapse loss to combat Alzheimer’s for about 10 years. Following successful animal studies, Philip Scheltens, director of the Alzheimer Center at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, led a clinical trial in Europe involving 225 patients with mild Alzheimer’s.
The patients drank Souvenaid or a control beverage daily for three months.
That study, first reported in 2008, found that 40 percent of patients who consumed the drink improved in a test of verbal memory, while 24 percent of patients who received the control drink improved their performance.
In the new study, performed in several European countries and overseen by Scheltens as principal investigator, 259 patients were given either Souvenaid or a placebo.
Patients entering this study were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, averaging around 25 on a scale of dementia that ranges from 1 to 30, with 30 being normal.
Each group improved verbal memory for the following three months. After this period, the placebo patient verbal memory began to decline while the Souvenaid patients continued to improve.
During this study, researchers used a comprehensive memory used to assess Alzheimer’s patients in clinical research.
Researchers also 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, the researchers say.
Researchers say that supplement has not helped patients with Alzheimer’s at a more advanced stage. This makes sense, Wurtman says, because patients with more advanced dementia have probably already lost many neurons, so they can’t form new synapses.
Investigators are also studying the effectiveness of the product among individuals who are starting to show mild cognitive impairment. 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 says.
If the supplement is found to be beneficial in slowing memory loss, experts say proactive brain scanning tests may be indicated as they are currently rarely done because of the inability to retard the memory loss and Alzheimer’s process.