There are currently around 700,000 people in the UK with dementia and it is believed that these figures are set to rise to one million in the next 10 years because of the ageing population. New research adds to the weight of evidence suggesting that people who regularly include fish as part of their diet have a lower risk of developing dementia and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease.
The human brain is a complex organ that controls our senses, our movements, receives information, analyses information, and stores this information as memories. Dementia, simply put, means ‘deprived of the mind’ and, contrary to what many of us consider an acceptable part of growing old, memory loss and dementia are not a natural part of the ageing process. Scientists are now suggesting that the omega-3 EPA, found in fish oil, can help. Like any organ, the brain needs nurturing, and if we provide our brain with the correct nutrients then we can help to ensure the function of our brain remains at its most efficient.
Oily fish is particularly high in the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and it is these fats that are known to have a profound role in brain function – in part through their regulation of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, which plays a vital role in regulating cognitive function. Loss of acetylcholine-producing neurons is thought to account for some of the degradation of cognitive function associated with Alzheimer’s disease. These fats have consequently become the focus of many studies looking at methods to protect the brain from premature aging.
Indeed, evidence to clarify the role of EPA on memory has been the focus of a study published in a recent edition of the Journal of Neurochemistry (Taepavarapruk & Song, 2009). In the study, researchers fed artificially stressed animals a control diet containing palm oil, which then showed a subsequent decrease in the release of acetylcholine. This decrease was also associated with a decrease in expression of nerve growth factor – a protein that is important for the growth, maintenance, and survival of neurons. Both of these changes were associated with memory impairment.
In contrast, similarly stressed animals fed diets containing EPA showed improved memory, which the scientists conducting the study linked to an inhibition in the reduction of acetylcholine and nerve growth factor release. Simply put, EPA helped to maintain acetylcholine and nerve growth factor function, which in turn helped to maintain memory. More interestingly, however, was their finding that of the two fatty acids studied (EPA and DHA), it was only EPA that demonstrated these beneficial results.
Whilst DHA provides an important structural role in brain nerve tissue, the results of this study further imply that EPA has a very direct protective role, influencing both the production and release of neurotransmitters that become depleted in Alzheimer’s disease.
These results offer hope to many people and further support the role of the omega-3 EPA in neuronal function. For example, it has been previously demonstrated in vitro and in animal studies that EPA (preferentially over DHA) stimulates the expression of several myelin proteins known to play a vital role in maintaining cell membrane integrity (Salvati et al, 2004; Salvati et al, 2008). As the evidence for EPA’s neuro-protective role in dementia increases, we are also seeing a corresponding growth in the demand for high quality, purified EPA fish oil. Indeed, the supplement market has grown considerably in the last decade and is now saturated with a wide variety of products, of which the average content appears to be 180 mg EPA and 120 mg DHA in 1000 mg fish oil. Not all supplements offer the same benefits, however, and low concentration fish oil products are certainly impractical for therapeutic use.
With increasing concerns over contamination and research uncovering the unique individual biological properties of DHA and EPA, there has been a significant rise in high quality highly purified supplements containing specific ratios of EPA to DHA, as well as pure EPA with no DHA and vice versa. With research uncovering the unique properties of EPA in treating Alzheimer’s disease, a pure EPA supplement that is free of DHA is likely to offer the most benefit for therapeutic use. Vegepa high strength EPA capsules contain a unique synergistic formulation which combines ultra-pure EPA and organic virgin evening primrose oil, providing a highly concentrated source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and botanical free radical-scavenging triterpenes. An increasing number of doctors and nutrition experts are using Vegepa for a number of conditions including depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, cardiovascular health, arthritis, dementia, as well as common skin disorders.
Salvati S, Natali F, Attorri L, Raggi C, Di Biase A, Sanchez M. (2004) Stimulation of myelin proteolipid protein gene expression by eicosapentaenoic acid in C6 glioma cells. Neurochemistry International 44: 331-8.
Salvati S, Natali F, Attorri L, Di Benedetto R, Leonardi F, Di Biase A, Ferri F, Fortuna S, Lorenzini P, Sanchez M, Ricceri L, Vitelli L. (2008) Eicosapentaenoic acid stimulates the expression of myelin proteins in rat brain. Journal of Neuroscience Research 86: 776-84.
Taepavarapruk P, Song C. 2009 Reductions of acetylcholine release and nerve growth factor expression are correlated with memory impairment induced by interleukin-1beta administrations: effects of omega-3 fatty acid EPA treatment. J Neurochem. Dec 3. [Epub ahead of print]