Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have shown that a dietary cocktail that includes a type of omega-3 fatty acid can improve memory and learning in gerbils - paving the way for a possible beverage-based treatment for Alzheimer's and other brain diseases.
The combination of supplements, which contains three compounds normally found in the bloodstream, is now being tested in Alzheimer's patients.
Previously, the cocktail has been shown to promote growth of new brain connections in rodents.
"It may be possible to use this treatment to partially restore brain function in people with diseases that decrease the number of brain neurons, including, for example, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, strokes and brain injuries. Of course, such speculations have to be tested in double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials," said Richard Wurtman, Cecil H. Green Distinguished Professor of Neuropharmacology and senior author of a paper on the new work.
During the study, researchers found that normal gerbils treated with the mixture - a combination of DHA (a type of omega-3 fatty acid), uridine and choline - performed significantly better on learning and memory tests than untreated gerbils.
They developed the treatment as a new approach to tackling Alzheimer's - restoring the synapses, or connections between brain cells, that leads to cognitive decline in Alzheimer's patients.
The three dietary supplements under examination are precursors to the fatty molecules that make up cell membranes, including the membranes of brain cells, which form synapses.
In the study, researchers found that gerbils that received all three supplements had up to 70 percent more phosphatides (a type of molecule that forms cell membranes) than control mice, suggesting that new synapses are forming.
"The improvements in cognition observed in normal gerbils in this study and in rats with impaired cognition, in a previous study, correlate perfectly with the evidence of increased brain synapses, as shown biochemically and anatomically," said Wurtman.
"This suggests that treating the animals with the experimental mixture affects behaviour by increasing the number of synapses in important brain regions.
Some of the gerbils in the studies received all three compounds and some received only two.
The improvements in apparent synapse growth and cognitive ability were greatest in the rats given all three.
The study appeared in the July 7 online edition of the Journal of FASEB (Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology).