Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia according to News Medical, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control & Prevention. This neurodegenerative disease is progressive and cannot yet be cured or reversed. Researchers are looking at ways of preserving memory through diet and especially extra virgin olive oil.
It is estimated to affect approximately 5 million people in the United States alone.
A study by researchers from the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University (LKSOM) in Philadelphia, reported that extra virgin olive oil, which is the most common component in the Mediterranean Diet, boosts cognitive performance and could aid in preventing Alzheimer’s.
The study involved mice models that have the three components present in Alzheimer’s disease, memory impairment, amyloid plaque build-up and neurofibrillary tangles.
Amyloid plaques are the result of the excess production and build-up of beta-amyloid, a fragment of the protein called “amyloid precursor protein.” In Alzheimer’s disease, these plaques build up in the spaces between neurons and cause loss of memory.
Neurofibrillary tangles are the result of twisted strands of a protein called tau. In a healthy brain, tau helps with the transportation of nutrients and other molecules that the brain cells need. In Alzheimer’s disease, this protein gets tangled up inside the brain cells, which happen to be dying because essential nutrients no longer reach them.
Alzheimer’s characteristics begin to develop in a rodents quite early on, so in this experiment, the oil was added to the diet when the mice were 6 months old, before any symptoms could have appeared.
The mice were separated into two groups. The first were fed a regular diet including extra virgin olive oil while the second group has no extra virgin olive oil added to their diet. The researchers evaluated the mice’s cognitive abilities by administering tests for their spatial memory, working memory, and learning skills.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Preserves Brain Cell Health
In terms of general appearance, no differences were noted between the two animal groups.
But, when the mice were 9 months and 12 months old, the mice that had been fed the extra-virgin olive oil diet performed much better in the cognitive tests.
Lead investigator Dr. Dominica Praticò and his team also analyzed the brain tissue of these mice, and the studies revealed striking differences between the appearance and functioning of the nerve cells.
Firstly, the integrity of the synapses – which are the parts of the brain cell that facilitate communication among neurons – was preserved much better in the olive oil group. Secondly, the brain tissue in the mice fed olive oil revealed a “dramatic increase” in the autophagy activation of the nerve cells.Autophagy is a process that sees nerve cells disintegrate and eliminate the toxic debris that tends to accumulate between the cells. In this experiment, the increase in autophagy led to a decrease in the amyloid plaques and tau.
Dr. Praticò says, “This is an exciting finding for us. Thanks to the autophagy activation, memory, and synaptic integrity were preserved, and the pathological effects in animals otherwise destined to develop Alzheimer’s disease were significantly reduced. This is a very important discovery, since we suspect that a reduction in autophagy marks the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease.”