For years, research to pin down the underlying cause of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) has been focused on plaque found to be building up in the brain in AD patients.
But treatments targeted at breaking down that buildup have been ineffective, suggesting that the buildup may be a side effect of AD and not the cause itself.
In a new study, researchers found new support for an alternate theory that is growing in strength: Alzheimer’s could actually be a result of metabolic dysfunction in the brain.
In other words, there is growing evidence that diet and lifestyle are at the heart of Alzheimer’s disease.
The research was conducted by a team at Brigham Young University.
Alzheimer’s disease is increasingly being referred to as insulin resistance of the brain or type 3 diabetes. The current research shows there is likely a lifestyle origin to the disease, at least to some degree.
In the study, the research team examined RNA sequences in 240 post-mortem Alzheimer’s disease-impacted brains.
They focused on the gene expression of nervous system support cells during two types of metabolism: glucose metabolism, where carbohydrates are broken down to provide energy, and something called ketolytic metabolism.
Ketolytic metabolism involves the brain creating energy from ketones, molecules made in the body when the hormone insulin is low and people are burning relatively higher amounts of fat.
The popular “Keto Diet” is named after the process since that low-carb, high-protein diet lowers insulin levels and causes the body to burn fat instead of carbs and produce ketones.
The researchers found widespread glucose metabolism impairment in those nervous system support cells of the brains of former Alzheimer’s disease patients, but limited ketolytic metabolism impairment.
The finding is significant because the brain is like a hybrid engine, with the ability to get its fuel from glucose or ketones, but in the Alzheimer’s brains studied, there appears to be a fundamental genetic deficit in the brain’s ability to use glucose.
The inability to use glucose increases the value of ketones. However, because the average person is eating insulin-spiking foods so frequently, there’s never any ketones available to the brain.
The team concludes that treatments involving ketones may be able to support brain metabolism and slow the cognitive decline associated with the disease.
The study is published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia. One author of the study is Benjamin Bikman.
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