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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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Fish Fat May Help Fight Alzheimer's Disease

DHA, a Fatty Acid in Fish Such as Salmon, May Help Save Brain Cells
WebMD Health News

Sept. 8, 2005 -- New research shows how a fat found in fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring might help fight Alzheimer's disease.

The fat is called DHA. That's short for docosahexaenoic acid. Technically, it's an omega-3 fatty acid.

DHA and human brain cells were recently studied by researchers including Nicolas Bazan, MD, PhD, of Louisiana State University's Neuroscience Center of Excellence.

The scientists noticed that DHA helped brain cells in two ways:

  • Curbing production of beta-amyloid proteins, which are seen in Alzheimer's brain plaque
  • Boosting production of another protein called NPD1 that helps brain cells stay alive

The findings appear in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Fat to the Rescue

The researchers examined the brain of someone with Alzheimer's disease who had died. Such brains tend to have tangles and clumps of proteins, as well as signs of inflammation.

Scientists don't know exactly what triggers Alzheimer's disease to develop. However, they've noticed clumps of amyloid protein and bundles of tangles (twisted fibers) in brains of people who suffer with the condition. Brain nerve cell death, which is the hallmark of the memory-robbing disorder, is associated with these proteins and leads to the personality changes and other abnormalities that occur with the disease.

It's unclear whether plaques or tangles cause Alzheimer's disease or whether these are a byproduct of some other process that causes the condition.

DHA may help put the brakes on beta-amyloid proteins and rev up NPD1, write Bazan and colleagues. NPD1 acts like a bodyguard for brain cells, blocking the disease's attempts to make brain cells die, the study shows.

Fish as Brain Food

Bazan's study was done in a lab. They didn't serve anyone fish for supper every night or dole out fish oil capsules.

The researchers also don't recommend any particular dose of DHA for Alzheimer's disease. But they note that DHA is essential for the brain.

Past studies have shown that people who eat a lot of fish tend to be less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who hardly ever eat fish. For instance, a study published in 2003 showed that elderly Chicagoans who reported eating fish once a week for four years developed Alzheimer's less often than those who rarely or never ate fish.

That doesn't prove that fish prevents Alzheimer's, but the pattern is getting lots of attention. DHA has also been found to be important for babies' brain development.

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