Low-carb diet to combat brain ageing, study finds

Amanda Goh on how low carb diets can help against brain ageing and brain degeneration

Amanda Goh
13th March 2020
A study by Lilianne R. Mujica-Parodi, a Stony Brook University professor, had revealed that neurobiological changes associated with ageing can be seen at a much younger age than expected. The study was published in PNAS, with Dr Mujica-Parodi as the lead author.

Titled 'diet modulates brain network stability, a biomarker for brain ageing, in young adults', the study focuses on the presymptomatic period to better understand how diet influences brain ageing. This was done by examining brain scans, where the research determined that brain pathways start deteriorating in the late 40s. "However, the study also suggests that this process may be prevented or reversed based on dietary changes that involve minimising the consumption of simple carbohydrates," Dr Mujica-Parodi notes.

The researchers had focused on young people whose brains had yet to show any signs of ageing. This can be seen as the period where prevention may be the most effective. The study further used the brain scans of 1,000 individuals between ages 18 to 88, as well as targeted experiments in humans. Researchers found that damage to neural pathways accelerated depending on where the brain gets its energy from. They had used both methods to test the impact of manipulating fuel types, between glucose and ketone bodies.

In a standard diet, the primary fuel metabolised was found to be glucose. Whilst in a low carb diet, the fuel metabolised was ketones. The results had shown that the differences between the diets could result to the type of fuel provided to the brain.

Dr Mujica-Parodi highlighted that the experiment had shown both good and bad news. "The bad news is that we see the first signs of brain ageing much earlier than was previously thought. however, the good news is that we may be able to prevent or reverse these effects with diet , mitigating the impact of encroaching hypo metabolism by exchanging glucose for ketones as fuel for neutrons". The study had additionally found that the effects of brain ageing had emerged at 47 whilst the most rapid degeneration occurs at 60.

Results of the study had also suggested that brain network destabilisation may reflect early signs of hypo-metabolism, which is associated with dementia. This is seen as neutrons slowly lose the ability to use glucose effectively as fuel, further highlighting that dementia may be the 'brain's manifestation of metabolic disease'. Dr Mujica-Parodi also suggests that "if we can increase the amount of energy available to the brain by using a different fuel, the hope is that we can restore the brain to more youthful functioning".

Fortunately, it was also found that dietary interventions resulting in ketone usage will increase energy and may show potential in protecting the ageing brain. A ketogenic diet is one high in fats and proteins, with little to no carbohydrates. This diet would force the body to burn fat rather than carbohydrates. Dr Katy Stubbs, from Alzheimer's Research UK had mentioned that while this study is 'very interesting', it needs to be further investigated. "The ketogenic diet has risks of its own... eating such high levels of fat... generally goes with people eating less fruit and vegetables, has a detrimental impact on your heart..."

While further research at a microscopic scale is needed, the study continues to encourage dietary interventions.

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