Scientists at the Universities of Oxford, in the UK, and Bergen, Norway, have found an association between pathologically-confirmed Alzheimer's disease and moderately elevated blood levels of the amino acid, homocysteine. A moderate elevation in blood levels of homocysteine is a known risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Researchers found that 76 patients in the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing (OPTIMA) who had pathologically-confirmed Alzheimer's disease had elevated blood levels of homocysteine and lower blood levels of folate and vitamin B12 (the vitamins which control homocysteine levels) than 108 age-matched control subjects.
These latest findings, which have yet to be published, were reported yesterday (Monday 27 April) in Nijmegen, Netherlands, at the second International Conference on Homocysteine Metabolism. However, the authors of the report, `Hyperhomocysteinemia: an independent risk factor for histopathologically-confirmed Alzheimer's disease - Professor David Smith, Dr R Clarke, Dr K A Jobst, Ms L Sutton, Professor P M Ueland, and Professor H Refsum - stressed that these biochemical changes in the blood could be a consequence, rather than a cause, of Alzheimer's disease, and that further work is required to distinguish between these two interpretations.
In particular, clinical trials over a number of years will be needed to determine if lowering homocysteine levels, by means of dietary supplementation with folic acid and vitamin B12, influences the development of Alzheimer's disease. Individuals should not take extra folic acid without consulting their doctor.
Profesor David Smith, Chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at Oxford and head of OPTIMA, said: `These findings are important because they provide a testable hypothesis that it may be possible to prevent or delay the progression of Alzheimer's disease in a proportion of potential sufferers. However, testing this hypothesis will require long and costly trials.'
A full paper describing the results of this study is being considered for publication in a medical journal, and no further details of the research will be issued until the date of publication.
The study has been supported by a long-term grant to the University of Oxford's Department of Pharmacology by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co, and to the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Bergen from the Norwegian Council on Cardiovascular Disease.
Since its foundation in 1988, OPTIMA has been conducting research into changes which occur in the brain as part of the ageing process. In revealing the differences between normal brain ageing and diseases like Alzheimer's disease, OPTIMA aims to lay the foundations for the development of new forms of prevention and treatment.
The project's work was examined in two hour-long documentaries, `Assault on the Mind', shown on Channel 4 in the UK on April 21 and 28. The programme outlined the methods and main achievements of OPTIMA, including:
* Development of an accurate diagnostic procedure for Alzheimer's disease in life by a combination of structural and functional brain imaging.
* Discovery of a biological `state' marker, the thickness of the medial temporal lobe, that can be used to follow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.
Notes to editors: No interviews or further comments will be given by members of the OPTIMA team until publication of the full paper. More details about OPTIMA's research are available on the OPTIMA website at http://www.pharm.ox.ac.uk/optima.htm
Any additional queries should be addressed to the University Press Office on 01865 278181/2/3.
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