Extra virgin olive oil may protect against multiple types of dementia

Boosting brain function is key to staving off the effects of aging.

In a new study, researchers found that if there was one thing every person should consider doing right now to keep their brain young, it is to add extra virgin olive oil to their diet.

The research was conducted by scientists at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.

Extra virgin olive oil is a superfood, rich in cell-protecting antioxidants and known for its multiple health benefits, including helping put the brakes on diseases linked to aging, most notably cardiovascular disease.

Previous research also showed that extra virgin olive oil preserves memory and protects the brain against Alzheimer’s disease.

In the study, the scientists show that yet another group of aging-related diseases can be added to that list—tauopathies, which are characterized by the gradual buildup of an abnormal form of a protein called tau in the brain.

This process leads to a decline in mental function or dementia.

The findings are the first to suggest that extra virgin olive oil can defend against a specific type of mental decline linked to tauopathy known as frontotemporal dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is itself one form of dementia. It primarily affects the hippocampus—the memory storage center in the brain.

Frontotemporal dementia affects the areas of the brain near the forehead and ears.

Symptoms typically emerge between ages 40 and 65 and include changes in personality and behavior, difficulties with language and writing, and eventual deterioration of memory and ability to learn from prior experience.

The team describes the new work as supplying another piece in the story about extra virgin olive oil’s ability to ward off cognitive decline and to protect the junctions where neurons come together to exchange information, which is known as synapses.

In previous work, the team showed that extra virgin olive oil supplied in the diet protected young mice from memory and learning impairment as they aged.

Most notably, when the researchers looked at brain tissue from mice fed extra virgin olive oil, they did not see features typical of cognitive decline, particularly amyloid plaques—sticky proteins that gum up communication pathways between neurons in the brain.

Rather, the animals’ brains looked normal.

The team’s new study shows that the same is true in the case of mice engineered to develop tauopathy.

In these mice, normal tau protein turns defective and accumulates in the brain, forming harmful tau deposits, also called tangles.

Tau deposits, similar to amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease, block neuron communication and thereby impair thinking and memory, resulting in frontotemporal dementia.

Tau mice were put on a diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil at a young age, comparable to about age 30 or 40 in humans.

Six months later, when mice were the equivalent of age 60 in humans, tauopathy-prone animals experienced a 60% reduction in damaging tau deposits, compared to littermates that were not fed extra virgin olive oil.

Animals on the extra virgin olive oil diet also performed better on memory and learning tests than animals deprived of extra virgin olive oil.

The team found that improved brain function was likely facilitated by healthier synapse function, which in turn was linked to greater-than-normal levels of a protein known as complexin-1.

Complexin-1 is known to play a critical role in maintaining healthy synapses.

The researchers now plan to explore what happens when extra virgin olive oil is fed to older animals that have begun to develop tau deposits and signs of cognitive decline, which more closely reflects the clinical scenario in humans.

One author of the study is Domenico Praticò, MD, Scott Richards North Star Foundation Chair for Alzheimer’s Research.

The study is published in Aging Cell.

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