Homocysteine can cause brain shrinkage
Preliminary research by a team of scientists lead by David Smith, Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology at Oxford has shown that high levels of an amino acid called homocysteine in the body can damage brain cells causing brain shrinkage and that B vitamins like B-12, B-6 and folic acid can have a reducing effect on homocysteine and thus prevent its ability to cause this damage.
Results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and showed that people in the trial who got the B vitamins were almost entirely protected from the brain shrinkage suffered by those who only got a placebo pill.
B vitamins reduce brain shrinkage
While a rapidly shrinking brain is one of the signs of a raised risk for Alzheimer’s, the people in the research taking the B vitamins had 90 per cent less shrinkage in their brains than those taking the placebo.
Scans showed the areas of the brain that were protected from damage were almost exactly the same as Alzheimer’s typically destroys.
‘I’ve never seen results from brain scans showing this level of protection,’ said Paul Thompson, professor of neurology and head of the Imaging Genetics Center at UCLA School of Medicine, California. Thompson is a specialist in using brain scans with all manner of problems and treatment. Typically, a good result is a 25% improvement.
The research was part funded by the Government’s Medical Research Council and was ran for two years by OPTIMA (Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing) at Oxford University.
In healthy adults, homocysteine is normally converted into two important brain chemicals; one, acetylcholine is essential for memory function.
However, a great deal of research shows Alzheimer’s patients have high levels of homocysteine but low levels of acetylcholine.
A link between B vitamin deficiency and brain deterioration has been known for quite some time. For example, in cases of alcoholism where B vitamin levels are diminished, brain function is depleted.
In this Oxford study (itself a follow up to one reported PLoS ONE in 2010), by using scans, for the first time B vitamins were linked to a reduction in brain shrinkage, and increased cognitive function.
B vitamins and gut bacteria
Homocysteine levels are also indicators of cancer risk. The higher the level, the greater the risk. And, as we age we are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or cancer. B vitamins may be a simple preventative measure against the build up of homocysteine.
Ordinarily, B vitamins are made in the gut by the action of certain bacteria on fibrous foods. And increasingly we know that both Alzheimer’s and cancer are linked to a loss of diversity in the gut bacteria and thus lowered levels of B vitamin production.
So will the NHS be telling people to take dementia prevention steps by supplementing with B complex vitamins? Or perhaps protecting your B vitamin production line by taking a daily multi-strain probiotic once you pass the age of 50?