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Posted: December 09, 2008

Study Links Fast Food to Alzheimer's; Fat, Cholesterol May Spur Dementia

The fat, sugar and cholesterol found in most franchised fast food products could increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease, according to Swedish researchers, who based their finding on studies using mice that had been fed a human-like fast-food diet.

"On examining the brains of these mice, we found a chemical change not unlike that found in the Alzheimer’s brain," said Susanne Akterin, a researcher at the Karolinska Institute's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, who led the study.


Laboratory mice were kept on a fast-food diet for nine months. Within that period, the mice displayed the same sorts of abnormal brain "tangles" that are normally associated with Alzheimer's disease, an incurable and the most common form of dementia.


Writing about their results, the researchers said they suspect that a diet high in fat and cholesterol, when combined with certain genetic factors, could be a contributor to Alzheimer's.


Alzheimer's research has intensified in recent years as a large portion of the population -- baby boomers -- ages and becomes at risk. A number of promising new developments have been reported in the last two years, mostly focusing on removing collections of protein plaque in the brain.


Akterin and colleagues are taking a different tack, focusing on genetic features of some people that may make them more vulnerable to the disease. The team studied a gene variant called apoE4 which has been shown to increase the risk of Alzheimer's. The gene plays a role in the movement of cholesterol through the body.


“We now suspect that a high intake of fat and cholesterol in combination with genetic factors, such as apoE4, can adversely affect several brain substances, which can be a contributory factor in the development of Alzheimer’s,” says Akterin.


The research used genetically-engineered mice to copy the effect of the variant gene in humans. The mice's diet was designed to resemble a human diet heavy on fast-food.


Akterin said the mice showed chemical changes in their brains, suggesting an unusual build-up of the plaque protein.


Previous research has shown that a phenomenon known as oxidative stress in the brain and a relatively low intake of dietary antioxidants can also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. Akterin has now demonstrated that two antioxidants are dysfunctional in the brains of Alzheimer patients, which can lead to nerve cell death.


“All in all, the results give some indication of how Alzheimer’s can be prevented, but more research in this field needs to be done before proper advice can be passed on to the general public,” she says.


( contributed to this report)

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