Can Fish Oil Fight Alzheimer's Disease?
- 03-30-2007, 11:54 PM
Can Fish Oil Fight Alzheimer's Disease?
CanFight Alzheimer's Disease?
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS - Everyone knows that fish is brain food, but no one is sure whether nutrients in fish can fend off brain-ravaging diseases.
Now, a nationwide trial is trying to determine whether one component of fish, an oil called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), can slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid, a class of oils often found in fish, nuts, soy and other plants. (Fish actually don't make the oil. They get it from eating algae or other fish that eat algae.) In people, DHA is found in the brain's gray matter and in the retina of the eye and is important for protecting nerve cells from damage.
Cardiologists have been touting omega-3 fats for heart health for years, said Dr. George Grossberg, an Alzheimer's disease researcher at St. Louis University, which is part of the trial. Grossberg says the fats are also part of a recipe for a healthy brain.
The idea that DHA could fight off Alzheimer's disease is based on good, but still circumstantial, evidence.
Cultures that have heavy fish consumption have low rates of heart disease and dementia, Grossberg said. Recent studies in Europe and the Framingham Heart Study in the United States showed that people with the highest levels of DHA in the blood are about half as likely to develop dementia as those with low levels of the nutrient.
Animal studies back up the epidemiological evidence. Mice fed diets rich in DHA had less damage to their brains from Alzheimer's disease than mice that had a diet deficient in the nutrient, said Dr. James E. Galvin, a neurologist at Washington University, which is also participating in the trial.
The effect may be exclusive to DHA, Galvin said. Studies testing flax seed oil and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), another type of fish oil, didn't show a benefit for people with Alzheimer's disease in a recent study, he said.
The universities and 50 other sites around the country will recruit a total of about 400 people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's who are still functional enough to live at home. Participants will need to bring a "study buddy" with them - a friend, relative or caretaker who can tell the researchers how the patient functions in daily life.
The buddy is important because often people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease don't realize there is anything wrong, and doctors' tests can fail to pick up the problem, Grossberg said.
"But I've learned that the family is always right," he said. "They'll say, 'I don't care what the tests show, that's not the same Dad we've always known. ... He used to be a whiz with numbers, and now he's having trouble balancing the checkbook.'"
The study will last 18 months. The researchers will randomly assign 60 percent of the participants to get a supplement containing 2 grams of DHA and the remaining 40 percent to get a placebo. Participants can continue taking prescribed Alzheimer's drugs.
People who have heard about the study tell Galvin they're running out to buy the supplements. But the amount of DHA being used in the trial is much higher than that found in most commercially available capsules. A person would probably have to take about 18 capsules of fish oil supplements each day to equal the amount of DHA being tested in the study. It could cost about $150 each month to buy that much fish oil, he said.
And most Americans don't get enough DHA in their diets to help either.
"Most people don't eat two cans of sardines a day," Grossberg said.
The DHA in the study is made by Martek Biosciences Corporation of Columbia, Md., from algae, Galvin said. The product is approved by the FDA for use in baby formula.
The study is sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, one of the National Institutes of Health.
- 03-31-2007, 12:29 AM
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