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Gerbils In the Fight Against Alzheimer's

OK, this blog isn't called Today in Gerbils.

But on occasion, our gaze must shift to another member of the family Rodentia - and a recent study of gerbils suggests a possible drink-based treatment for Alzheimer's and other brain diseases.

Researchers at MIT have found that a dietary cocktail containing a type of omega-3 fatty acid can improve memory and learning in gerbils. It had previously been shown to promote the growth of new synapses in rodents.

"It may be possible to use this treatment to partially restore brain function in people with diseases that decrease the number of brain neurons, including, for example, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, strokes and brain injuries," said Richard Wurtman, professor of neuropharmacology and senior author of a paper describing the study, which has been submitted to the Alzheimer's Association International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease to be held in Chicago later this month. "Of course, such speculations have to be tested in double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials."

Those trials are underway in Europe. Wurtman's new findings, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, appeared in the July 7 online edition of the Journal of the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology.

The innovative combination of supplements is designed to repair the synapses -- the connections between brain cells that play a critical role in learning and memory - which lead to cognitive decline in Alzheimer's patients. Wurtman and his team discovered that normal gerbils who drank the beverage performed much better on learning and memory tests than untreated gerbils.

The mixture comprises DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid which is not produced in the body but is found in fish, eggs and flaxseed; uridine, a component of human breast milk; and choline, which is in meats, nuts and eggs. In the FASEB study, Wurtman and his colleagues found that gerbils that got all three supplements showed up to 70 percent more phosphatides (a type of molecule that forms cell membranes, including synapses) than control mice.

"The improvements in cognition observed in normal gerbils in this study and in rats with impaired cognition, in a previous study, correlate perfectly with the evidence of increased brain synapses, as shown biochemically and anatomically," said Wurtman. "This suggests that treating the animals with the experimental mixture affects behavior by increasing the number of synapses in important brain regions."