A combination of nutrients developed at MIT has shown the potential to improve memory in Alzheimer's patients by stimulating growth of new brain connections. In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, patients typically suffer a major loss of the brain connections called synapses, necessary for memory and information processing. In a clinical trial of 225 Alzheimer's patients in Europe, researchers found that a “cocktail” of three naturally occurring nutrients believed to promote growth of those connections, uridine, choline and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, plus B vitamins, phosopholipids and antioxidants, improved verbal memory in patients with mild Alzheimer's. "If you can increase the number of synapses by enhancing their production, you might to some extent avoid that loss of cognitive ability," says Richard Wurtman, the Cecil H. Green Distinguished Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, who did the basic research that led to the new experimental treatment and authored a paper describing the new results in the journal Alzheimer's and Dementia. Wurtman hopes to attack what he believes is the root cause of the disease: loss of synapses. In the European study, patients with mild Alzheimer's drank the cocktail or a control beverage daily for 12 weeks. Patients who received the nutrients showed a statistically significant level of improvement compared to control subjects: 40 percent of the treated patients improved performance in a test of verbal memory (memory for words, as opposed to memory of locations or experiences) while 24 percent of patients who received the control drink improved their performance. Among those who received the cocktail, patients with the mildest cases of Alzheimer's showed the most improvement. (So far, the drink appeared to have no effect on patients' performance in another commonly used evaluation for Alzheimer's patients, the ADAS-cog test.) Three additional clinical studies in Alzheimer's patients are now underway, one in the United States and two in Europe. Results are expected between 2011 and 2013. John Growdon, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that trying to regrow synapses is an innovative strategy and offers a complementary approach to two other lines of attack in treating Alzheimer's: targeting the amyloid plaques that accumulate in patients' brains and minimizing the damage done by toxic metabolites that build up in Alzheimer's-affected brains. Says Growdon, "You need to have a lot of different approaches because no one knows what's going to work."
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