Bid to prevent gut bacteria triggering Alzheimer’s

Michelle Wisbey

21/05/2024 4:16:13 PM

Australian researchers are hopeful they can one day slow down or halt the disease’s progression, as they embark on a new gut study.

Nurse speaking to elderly patient.
In 2024, more than 421,000 Australians are living with dementia.

Research has begun to determine how harmful gut bacteria can access the brain and lead to dementia, with the hope of creating new drug therapies to help patients.
As evidence mounts of a correlation between Alzheimer’s disease and an unhealthy gut, University of South Australia (UniSA) scientists say it should be possible to slow down or halt the condition’s progression.
The research team is investigating how metabolites released by bad bacteria in the gut can travel to the brain, cause inflammation, and trigger Alzheimer’s disease.
UniSA nano bio-scientist Dr Ibrahim Javed said by identifying how these metabolites can damage neurons, he is hopeful the disease’s progression could be stopped.
‘Our research indicates that harmful gut bacteria can trigger early onset dementia as well as accelerate dementia in patients already battling the neurodegenerative disease,’ he said.
‘A poor diet is one of several factors that harms gut bacteria, increasing your chances of developing dementia.
‘Ageing, lack of exercise, exposure to pesticides and genetics also play a role, although the latter is responsible for a very small number of cases. In most cases, dementia is preventable.’
The three-year research project will also examine how probiotics and nutritional supplements can stamp out bad bacteria and stop metabolites escaping from the gut, after international research found they improved digestive and cognitive issues in people with acute and chronic COVID-19.
Dr Terri-Lynne South, a GP dietitian and Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Obesity, welcomed the new research endeavour, and told newsGP there is already evidence linking gut health to mental, cognitive, and metabolic health.
‘This study could look at decreasing the bad gut bacteria, possibly increasing the good gut bacteria, possibly blocking the bad gut bacteria and neurotoxins getting to the brain, and possible options in regard to stopping that translocation of neurotoxins through the bowel – there are multiple ways this research might lead us, and it is exciting,’ she said.
‘Particularly from an Alzheimer’s point of view, we’ve had limited medications, and they haven’t been particularly affective, and we’ve also got an ageing Australian population, and so it’s only going to be of a greater concern for the population.
‘In my patient cohort, I’m getting people who could be considered middle age, and they are worried about healthy ageing, they know we’re expected to live longer, but they want to live healthier, and any option that we can have to prevent Alzheimer’s or even treat early onset and early diagnosis is fantastic.’
The research comes as dementia remains the second leading cause of death of all Australians and the leading cause of death for women.
In 2024, more than 421,000 Australians are living with dementia, and without a medical breakthrough, that number is expected to increase to more than 812,500 by 2054.
Additionally, 68% of aged care residents have moderate to severe cognitive impairment.
But with healthy habits linked to dementia prevention, Dr South said it is, unfortunately, becoming harder for patients to make healthy food choices, as they are bombarded with product marketing, or priced out by the cost-of-living crisis.
‘It used to be about getting enough energy, enough protein, but we now have an oversupply of energy and a food industry that’s making unprocessed foods extremely palatable and cheap,’ she said.
‘We really need to be going back to basics of less processed, more fruit and veggies, but that is hard to access for a number of reasons including costs, time, and nutritional knowledge of what do we do with some of these vegetables.
‘If there was one nutritional message that I could give as many patients as I could, it would be eat more veggies and less processed food in as many ways as you can,’
The UniSA team is also working to establish a potential link between stress and Alzheimer’s disease, and whether women are more at risk.
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