Scientists based in Waterford have made a major breakthrough, which could slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease.
They claim that this represents ‘one of the most important medical advancements of the century'.
Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form of dementia, is a progressive and irreversible disease of the brain. It is characterised by a loss of intellectual function, chronic memory loss, language deterioration and personality change. An estimated 20,000-25,000 people in Ireland are affected.
The scientists have identified a combination of nutrients which appear to slow down the progression of the disease.
The research trial was pioneered by Cambridge University academic, Dr Alan Howard, and conduced by experts at the Nutrition Research Centre Ireland (NRCI) in the Waterford Institute of Technology, in collaboration with University Hospital Waterford.
The 18-month study looked at the effect of nutritional compounds found in common foods, such as broccoli, peppers and trout, on people with Alzheimer's.
They found that patients receiving nutritional supplements containing a specifically designed fish oil, maintained cognitive abilities and a quality of life that was far beyond those taking a different nutritional supplement.
Based on reports by the participants' carers, they experienced much more improvements in areas such as memory and mood.
"This represents one of the most important medical advancements of the century. Alzheimer's disease is the largest public health crisis we face and drug companies have so far fallen at every hurdle in finding a solution. This study gives us that breakthrough, in a unique natural compound of nutrients," Dr Howard commented.
According to NRCI founder and lead researcher, Prof John Nolan, it is already known that nutrition is a ‘key factor' in the development of Alzheimer's disease.
"However, attempts to identify an exact combination of nutrients that can positively impact on brain health have failed, until now.
"This work identifies a unique way to enhance the localised nutrients of the brain. Given our growing and ageing population and, importantly, that we live in a time where the nutritional value of foods continues to decline, I believe this is a valuable discovery that will challenge perceptions worldwide about the role of nutrition on brain function," he said.
Prof Riona Mulcahy from University Hospital Waterford, who was the medical consultant to the research, noted that the latest and best medical advice suggests that you can lower your risk of Alzheimer's through moderate alcohol intake, not smoking, being physically and mentally active, and eating a well-balanced diet.
"This study shows that diet deficiency is key. Science is now helping us understand exactly what nutrients our brains need. It's a very exciting development," she said.
Meanwhile, Dr Howard pointed out that the next important question is how people with Alzheimer's, or those at risk of the disease, ‘can obtain enough of these nutrients from a healthy, balanced diet to protect their brain'.
"The answer is they can't, due to the quantity necessary to effect such change and the decline in nutrient value of food before it even reaches our dinner plate. A supplement, which we know is safe, inexpensive and effective, could be life-changing for the millions affected by this disease.
"I believe this research paves the way for potential prevention of AD. Due to the small scale of this initial trial, we've now funded a larger project to confirm these findings. But it would be negligent for us to ignore these results until the next study reports back, which will take several years," Dr Howard insisted.
Details of these findings are published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.
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