The Role of the Atkins Diet in Alzheimer’s Disease

This October, an article published in the journal Molecular Neurodegeneration attracted headlines in several major newspapers. The authors of the study had found that mice fed a high-fat diet exhibited a 5-percent decrease brain weight and an increase in amyloid beta. People with Alzheimer’s disease have high levels of amyloid beta deposits in their brains. The authors didn’t say that a high-fat diet is associated with similar effects in humans, but obviously the results in mice raise some concern. Does ketosis (the liver’s production of byproducts in the blood when consuming a high-fat diet), which occurs on the Atkins Diet, impact thinking and learning?

Well, for many years, we neurologists have been using the ketogenic diet, which has significantly more fat and less carbohydrate than the Atkins diet, to treat children with epilepsy whose seizures don’t respond to medicines. When it works, the diet can be a miracle for these children and their parents. They report that most of these youngsters and teenagers, who are definitely at high risk for learning problems due to their epilepsy, are brighter and interact more with others while they’re on the diet than before. Some of this improvement is probably due to fewer seizures and medications, both of which can affect thinking, but many parents think these improvements are an effect of the ketogenic diet by itself.

We’ve also seen similar benefits when we use the relatively less restrictive “modified” Atkins Diet for children, teenagers and adults with epilepsy. Fortunately, no one has ever reported brain shrinkage on either diet and many stay on these high-fat diets for years and even decades without clear evidence of harm.

Okay, but what about Alzheimer’s disease? Interestingly, a company called Accera, Inc., has found that mice with a form of Alzheimer’s disease seemed to do better on a high-fat diet than a low-fat one. In contrast to the October study cited above, these mice fed the high-fat diet had less amyloid beta in their brains. The evidence was so striking that Accera created a powder containing medium-chain triglycerides (a form of fat) and called it Axona™. Its sole purpose is to increase the amount of ketones in the blood and treat Alzheimer’s disease. A study published in August in Nutrition & Metabolism showed that Axona™ slowed the advance of Alzheimer’s disease in 152 adults with mild to moderate disease. As a result, Axona™ is now FDA approved as a prescription dietary supplement to treat Alzheimer’s disease. In my opinion, it’s too early to say how important a treatment Axona™ is, based upon a single study, but it certainly has created a lot of excitement in the neurology community.

So what should you believe? I think it is safe to say at this point that there’s no clear evidence that ketogenic diets such as the Atkins Diet cause Alzheimer’s disease, brain shrinkage or memory loss. Although many scientists believe that such diets may actually help these conditions, it’s probably too early to say that either. However, neurologists are actively studying the effects of ketogenic diets not only for treating epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease, but also for such conditions as autism, brain tumors, traumatic brain injury, Tourette syndrome, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and migraines. You can read about all of these clinical studies on the Internet. Stay tuned for results.

Meanwhile, enjoy your low-carb lifestyle, which you can feel confident is improving your health in a number of clinically proven ways.

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