For years, doctors have encouraged people to consume foods such as fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids because they appear to improve memory and other brain functions.
The MIT research suggests that a cocktail treatment of omega-3 fatty acids and two other compounds normally present in the blood, could delay the cognitive decline seen in Alzheimer's disease, which afflicts an estimated 4 million to 5 million Americans.
"It's been enormously frustrating to have so little to offer people that have (Alzheimer's) disease," said Richard Wurtman, the Cecil H. Green Distinguished Professor of Neuropharmacology at MIT, who led the research team. The study appears in the May 9 issue of Brain Research.
Wurtman will present the research at the International Academy of Nutrition and Aging 2006 Symposium on Nutrition and Alzheimer's Disease/Cognitive Decline in Chicago on Tuesday, May 2.
The three compounds in the treatment cocktail - omega-3 fatty acids, uridine and choline - are all needed by brain neurons to make phospholipids, the primary component of cell membranes.
After adding those supplements to the diets of gerbils, the researchers observed a dramatic increase in the amount of membranes that form brain cell synapses, where messages between cells are relayed. Damage in brain synapses is believed to cause the dementia that characterizes Alzheimer's disease.
If the successful results obtained in gerbils can be duplicated in the ongoing human trials, the new treatment could offer perhaps not a cure but a long-term Alzheimer's treatment similar to what L-dopa, a dopamine precursor, does for Parkinson's patients, said Wurtman, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.