Taking certain B vitamin supplements on a daily basis can cut in half the rate of brain shrinkage in elderly people suffering from mild memory problems, reveals a new Oxford University study.
Approximately 1 in 6 elderly people over the age of 70 has mild cognitive impairment, experiencing troubles with memory, language or other mental functions, but not enough to interfere with everyday life.
About half of people with mild cognitive impairment will go on to develop dementia – mainly Alzheimer’s disease — within five years of diagnosis.
Certain B vitamins — vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and folic acid — control levels of homocysteine in the blood, and it is known that high levels of this amino acid are linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s.
So a team from the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing (OPTIMA) set out to discover whether supplements of these B vitamins could slow down the higher rate of brain shrinkage, or atrophy, as seen in mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s.
The study observed 168 volunteers aged 70 or over with mild memory problems. Half of these volunteers took high-dose B vitamin tablets for two years while the other half took a placebo tablet. The scientists evaluated disease progression in this group by using MRI scans to measure the brain atrophy rate over a two-year period. The findings are published in the journal PLoS ONE.
The researchers found that the brains of those taking folic acid, vitamin B6 and B12 supplements shrank at a rate of about 0.76 percent a year, while those in the placebo group had a mean brain shrinkage rate of 1.08 percent. People with the highest levels of homocysteine benefited the most, showing atrophy at only half the rate of those on placebo.
“It is our hope that this simple and safe treatment will delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease in many people who suffer from mild memory problems,” said Professor David Smith of the department of pharmacology at Oxford University, a co-leader of the trial.
Along with studying the rate of brain shrinkage, the scientists also evaluated cognitive test scores, discovering that those with the slowest rate of shrinkage scored the strongest in cognition.
The team suggests that, since brain atrophy is more rapid in those who begin with mild cognitive impairment and then later develop Alzheimer’s, it is possible that the vitamin treatment could hamper the development of the disease. Clinical trials to test this should now be carried out, they add.
“These are immensely promising results but we do need to do more trials to conclude whether these particular B vitamins can slow or prevent development of Alzheimer’s. So I wouldn’t yet recommend that anyone getting a bit older and beginning to be worried about memory lapses should rush out and buy vitamin B supplements without seeing a doctor,” said Smith.
Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, which co-funded the study, said, “These are very important results, with B vitamins now showing a prospect of protecting some people from Alzheimer’s in old age.”
“The strong findings must inspire an expanded trial to follow people expected to develop Alzheimer’s, and we hope for further success.”
“We desperately need to support research into dementia, to help avoid the massive increases of people living with the condition as the population ages. Research is the only answer to what remains the greatest medical challenge of our time.”
Professor Chris Kennard, chair of the Medical Research Council’s Neurosciences and Mental Health Board which co-funded the study, said, “‘This MRC-funded trial brings us a step closer to unraveling the complex neurobiology of aging and cognitive decline, which holds the key to the development of future treatments for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.”
“The findings are very encouraging and we look forward to further research that is needed in order to test whether B vitamins can be recommended as a suitable treatment.”
This two-year randomized clinical trial is the largest to study the effects of B vitamins on mild cognitive impairment, and one of the first disease-modifying trials in the Alzheimer’s field to have successful results in people.
Source: University of Oxford