A UAEU researcher has played a key role in an international study into the health benefits of B vitamins, which could make a crucial contribution to efforts to combat dementia.
Dr Abderrahim Oulhaj, Assistant Professor in Biostatistics, was part of a team of experts from four countries who have discovered that, while the impact of B vitamin supplements in slowing mental decline among older people with memory problems is well known, their effect could be enhanced with higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in the body.
The research group (led by Professor David Smith) – where Dr Oulhaj teamed up with representatives from the University of Oxford, University of Cape Town, and University of Oslo - studied more than 250 people in the UK with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition which leaves brain function below normal expectations and, while not interfering with daily life in itself, can be a gateway to dementia.
Building on the discovery of a link between Omega-3 levels, homocysteine – a B vitamin-related amino acid that can harm the brain – and brain atrophy rates, the scientists set themselves the goal of discovering whether Omega-3 and vitamins might combine to prevent the loss of cognitive abilities.
And, as Dr Oulhaj – who, in his previous role at the University of Oxford, was involved in a research project on memory and ageing from which the outcomes of this latest study are derived – explained: “The findings suggest that a combination treatment of B vitamins and fish oil may help to prevent brain shrinkage, improve thinking and memory in elderly subjects, and, in the long term, reduce the risk of developing dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease.”
Each participant in the study was given a set of cognition-measuring tests, and underwent a blood test to determine the levels of two Omega-3 fatty acids commonly found in oily fish - docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – in their body.
Having been split into two groups, they received either a B vitamin supplement or a placebo pill over two years, with their cognitive performance being monitored and the results compared with baseline data compiled at the outset of the study.
'We found that, for people with low levels of Omega-3, the vitamin supplements had little to no effect,” explained Dr Oulhaj.
“However, for those with high baseline Omega-3 levels, the B vitamins were very effective in preventing cognitive decline compared to the placebo. This result complements our previous finding that B vitamins slow the rate of brain atrophy in MCI only in those with a good Omega-3 level to start with.”
During the study, the team also found that DHA levels may be more important in preventing cognitive decline than EPA levels, with more research being required to ascertain this. The next stage of their project will focus on discovering whether a combination of B vitamins and Omega-3 supplements can slow the transition of MCI to Alzheimer’s disease – a potentially vital step in treatment of the illness.
Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at the Alzheimer's Society, emphasized the value of the research undertaken by Dr Oulhaj and his colleagues, saying: 'These results help us to tell who could benefit from taking B vitamins, suggesting that they might only improve cognition in people who have high levels of Omega-3 oils in their blood.
“Encouragingly, these findings suggest that, for some older people, a combination of fish oil supplements and B vitamins may help to improve thinking and memory.
“As this study shows, the relationship between nutrition and brain health is complex, and we need to see increased research efforts to help us understand the role that diet and nutrition can play in reducing a person’s risk of dementia.'