Could a nutritional supplement for livestock hold the promise of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in humans?
That’s the focus of experiments underway between Dr. Gregory Jicha of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky and Alltech, the Nicholasville-based agri-science company. Jicha appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss his research and the latest news on the race for a cure for Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Jicha, who is a professor of neurology at UK, has partnered with Alltech for several years to explore how a compound called yeast selenium formulated for farm animals might improve human health. After a series of initial trials involving test patients taking the compound for eight-week periods, Jicha says the results were “amazing.” At 20 times the typical recommended daily allowance, Jicha says the yeast selenium was not only safe but reduced inflammation throughout the body.
More importantly, it also seems to have other positive effects.
“It seemed to shift the brain away from Alzheimer’s and the production of Alzheimer’s-type proteins to a state of better brain health,” Jicha says.
In the original animal studies, yeast selenium reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s by almost 50 percent, according to Jicha. If that same result could be carried over to humans, he says millions of people worldwide could be spared the ravages of the fatal dementia. Phase-two clinical trials are underway now to verify the results of the initial human trials.
Risk and Prevention
Alzheimer’s is one of many forms of dementia that lead to memory and cognitive problems in people. Jicha says the most common causes of dementia are Alzheimer’s and cerebral vascular disease, or what some people call hardening of the arteries.
“If we could address those two problems, we would eliminate probably 70 to 80 percent of all forms of dementia on the planet,” says Jicha.
Genetics is a factor in Alzheimer’s. Jicha says that individuals who carry certain genes may be two or three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, but he says it’s not inevitable. He cautions that the opposite is also true: not possessing those genetic risks won’t prevent someone from getting Alzheimer’s.
“We really can’t change our genes,” says Jicha, “so that really causes us to focus quite a bit on prevention.”
According to the best available research, there are three key lifestyle factors that can reduce a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Jicha says those are physical exercise (at least 2 hours a week); a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and nuts, but low in sugar, carbohydrates, red meat, and saturated fats; and cognitive exercises such as doing crossword puzzles or other brain-training games.
The doctor says he’s seen patients in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s halt the progression of the disease by fully embracing those three strategies. But he’s also seen patients who are equally committed to those behaviors yet are still ravaged by dementia.
The Search for Better Treatments
Although there are numerous nutritional supplements on the market that claim to improve brain health, Jicha warns that most have them haven’t been rigorously tested to prove those claims – nor are they required to do so by federal regulators. He says there are relatively few companies like Alltech that are conducting the necessary research to empirically prove their product’s health benefits.
Unfortunately, rigorous research and development programs can also drive up the cost of drugs that do reach the market. Jicha says the current prescription medications for Alzheimer’s are available in generic form, which helps reduce their retail price, but they’re still far from inexpensive.
“Many of the medicines that are being developed are remarkably expensive and not practical to implement on a national or a global scale,” Jicha says. “Yet … Alzheimer’s disease and poor brain health is a global problem. So how are we really going to attack that? What we think is we really need an easy-to-take, low-cost treatment.”
That’s why Jicha is especially intrigued by research on the simple yeast selenium supplement and on ways to repurpose existing medications for other conditions for use by Alzheimer’s patients. He says those strategies could help contain treatment costs.
Because certain minorities may be at greater risk of Alzheimer’s, Jicha says it’s vital that clinical trials involve people from those populations.
“We can’t develop medicines that work for only certain people who come from certain ethnic or racial groups,” says Jicha. “The medicines have to have universal benefit.”
Using Technology to Help Patients and Caregivers
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has set a goal of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease by 2025, and Jicha is confident that goal will be achieved. Until that time though, he says more attention should be given to family members and loved ones who provide care to those with Alzheimer’s.
“We actually see the needs of the caregivers gradually rise over time to a point where they actually will exceed the needs of the patient with the disease,” the doctor says.
Jicha is experimenting with telemedicine for diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s patients and as a method for providing support services to caregivers. He says such video connections allow him serve communities that aren’t big enough to have medical specialists and to see patients in Paducah and Pikeville in the same hour.
Although it’s natural for our cognitive processes to slow down as we age, Jicha says it’s important to take episodes of memory loss seriously.
“Memory loss is not a part of normal aging. It is a signal that there’s something else going on,” says Jicha. “It should be looked at by a health care professional.”
Although Alzheimer’s is considered a disease of the elderly, there are examples of early-onset dementia in people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Jicha says those cases are relatively rare and usually associated with higher genetic risks. He adds that it’s good that Americans are more openly discussing the disease and its effects.
“Alzheimer’s and a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is not an embarrassment. It’s a disease just like heart disease or kidney disease,” says Jicha. “This is something for us to address openly with our families and our physicians. … People with memory problems should not be shunned, they need to be embraced and cared for.”