The number of American’s living with Alzheimer’s continues to increase; over 6 million Americans currently have this condition, a figure that’s expected to more than double by mid-century. According to a new study, the growth of Alzheimer’s cases could be heavily tied to both lifestyle choices and dietary patterns.
Alzheimer’s research often focuses on plaque buildup within the brain, which is usually blamed for the appearance of Alzheimer’s symptoms. In keeping with this line of thinking, researchers frequently try to alleviate symptoms by targeting and dissolving these plaque deposits. Unfortunately, such attempts have been met with relatively little success. Researchers from Brigham Young University (BYU) opted for a different approach. For their study, the BYU team examined 240 brains donated from deceased individuals, all of whom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. They then documented the gene expression of nervous system cells during the processes of glucose metabolism and ketolytic metabolism. The former involves the production of energy via carbohydrate consumption, while the latter refers to the creation of energy via the burning of fat. Burning this fat produces ketones, which are used to help power the brain.
So what did all this analysis reveal? In short, the BYU team found that Alzheimer’s did a number on nervous system cells when it came to glucose metabolism. The damage done to ketolytic metabolism, however, was much less severe. In plain English, this means that these brains had a reduced ability to extract energy from glucose. Because the brain is essentially a hybrid engine, getting its fuel from both glucose and ketones, losing one of its two energy sources leads to serious medical problems.
Senior study author Benjamin Bikman highlighted the importance of glucose metabolism in a BYU press release. “We’ve turned the hybrid engine of our brains into a mono-fuel system that just fails to thrive,” stated Bikman, a professor of physiology and developmental biology at BYU. “And so, the brain, which is progressively becoming deficient in its ability to use glucose, is now crying out for help; it’s starving in the midst of plenty. The body is swimming in a sea of glucose, but the brain just can’t use it.” In keeping with the study’s findings, Bikman contends that modern diets aren’t doing those at-risk of Alzheimer’s any favors. “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. I look at these findings as a problem we’ve created and that we’re making worse.”
The study concludes that treatments geared towards increasing ketone production could prove useful in addressing Alzheimer’s symptoms. The authors published their work in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia.