Europe continues to assess the role that diet can play in keeping our minds healthier for longer with the launch of a new study in Germany.
Researchers at the university of Heidelberg have started work to investigate the role of lipids in preventing age-related brain neurodegeneration and Alzheimer's disease (AD). AD, a fatal disease affecting higher brain function, is the most common neurodegenerative disorder amongst EU citizens, affecting about one third of the population.
Although the cause of AD is not yet fully understood, certain key processes involved in its development have been established over the last 20 years. According to current scientific belief, in most cases the disease depends on several environmental and genetic factors, and in about 5 per cent of cases the disease is genetic, resulting from mutations in three different genes.
A protein called Amyloid Precursor Protein (APP) is central to the disease causing process. The protein occurs normally in most cells, and sections of the protein (known as A-beta) may be 'cut out' by protease enzymes. The A-beta section accumulates over time in the brain and forms a dense amyloid cluster, or plaque. All people produce these plaques to some extent, but not all develop AD.
It appears, write the German researchers, that a specific form of A-beta called A-beta 42 specifically increases the likelihood of developing AD at an earlier age. Efforts to treat or prevent AD have been directed towards decreasing production of A-beta 42 or helping the brain to clear it.
Recently, research on AD has found that cholesterol increases the activity of the protease enzymes responsible for A-beta production. Treatment of patients with AD using cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) has shown promising results, with decreased production of A-beta 42. Cholesterol levels can also be influenced by diet.
The EU funded project - labelled the Lipidiet project - at Heidelberg began in 2002 and it is expected to end in 2005. Led by Dr Tobias Hartmann, the project aims to develop and evaluate the role of dietary lipids (fats) and related food additives in the prevention and treatment of AD.
Three main strands of investigation will be carried out. Firstly, cellular and molecular studies on the role of lipids in brain neurodegeneration, secondly the potential lipid-related treatments for brain neurodegeneration and AD will be formulated and assessed using in vivo models. Thirdly, modified lipid diets to slow down, and eventually prevent, AD in humans will be studied in vivo.