Poster: Treatment of neurons with coconut oil and constituent fatty acids attenuates the effects of amyloid beta in vitro
When someone finds out that I study the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease, all too often I get asked the heartbreaking question – ‘Is there a cure?’ Currently, there is no cure. Even within the field of Alzheimer research, there is a great deal of debate around whether or not there will ever be a cure for this fatal neurodegenerative disease that ravishes the brain leaving it inflamed and full of holes filled with gloopy clumps of protein where healthy neurons once lived. With such a dire prognosis, and a complete lack of effective treatment options, any new research – particularly research involving executable steps towards prevention (e.g. dietary supplements) – shines brightly with hope.
Coconut oil boasts a wide range of health and beauty benefits: from its antibacterial properties, to being an excellent hair conditioner. Recently, this tropical oil has popped up on researchers’ radar when stories told by the family members of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease emerged. Many reported that eating coconut oil improved the memory and mood of their loved-ones, even bringing back their all-but-lost personalities. While these accounts are anecdotal and there is limited evidence supporting the idea that adding coconut oil to your diet could significantly impact the course of the disease, theories behind the potential neurobiological mechanisms at work are being investigated.
In Alzheimer’s disease, aka Type 3 diabetes, neurons lose their ability to effectively use the brain’s main source of energy – glucose. When the brain cannot run on glucose, an alternative energy sources known as ketone bodies are employed. Coconut oil is made up of a high percentage of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), or fatty acids, that can be rapidly broken down by the liver into ketone bodies. These small molecules can easily cross the blood-brain barrier and help make an easy neuron snack.
Clinical trials using a special formulation of MCTs have reported significant improvements in Alzheimer patients after a few months of treatment. However, the MCTs used in the study are expensive and not widely available. Thus, there has been interest in investigating the effectiveness of coconut oil, which also contains a high percentage of MCTs, but can be found on the shelves of local grocery stores for a price that will make your wallet happy.
In Alzheimer’s disease, Aβ protein clumps up in the brain forming plaques, a hallmark of the disease, and unleashes a cascade of toxic effects on neurons. Recently, researchers at the Memorial University of Newfoundland found that treating neurons grown in the lab with coconut oil prevented the harmful effects of Aβ on the cells. When they broke the coconut oil down into some of its basic components, they found that the complete, unaltered oil, rather than just some of the fatty acid components, was more effective at protecting the cells. Additionally, cell survival increased the longer the coconut oil was on the neurons before exposure to the Aβ protein.
What does this all mean for people trying to prevent Alzheimer’s disease? Obviously a cell grown in a laboratory dish being protected is very different from what is occurring in a human brain, but this important work creates a foundation for uncovering the mechanisms behind the actions of coconut oil on neurons. New data filtering out of an ongoing clinical trial might suggest that coconut oil is not all that effective for patients with AD. But, after seeing that the longer the neurons in cultures were treated with coconut oil, the better they faired against the toxic protein, it may mean that future studies should target people years before disease development. This may be especially important for middle age adults to begin a regiment, since imaging studies have shown that people develop amyloid plaques in the brain 10-20 years prior to signs of cognitive problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Ultimately, adding coconut oil to your diet may be beneficial but I don’t want to portray false hope. The jury is still out and more research needs to be done. If you are thinking about adding it into your diet, make sure you use cold-pressed coconut oil. Animal studies have shown that using hydrogenated coconut oil could be responsible for deleterious effects on the hippocampus. And if you have any tasty recipes let me know in the comments below! If I take nothing else away from the neuroscience meeting this year, it will be that coconut oil I are going to become better acquainted.