January 09, 2017
Decades of research show that probiotics are good for your health – especially your digestive tract – but a new study shows that these beneficial live bacteria may also improve cognitive function in humans. In fact, probiotic supplementation may even benefit patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
As many as 5.4 million people have Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. AD is primarily associated with cognitive dysfunction but research shows an association between Alzheimer’s disease and metabolic disorders, such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
The gut-brain axis connects the digestive tract with the brain. It is why a person feels “butterflies” in their stomach when anxious, for example. The gut-brain axis also allows the digestive tract to influence the nervous system, immune system, and hormones.
While there have been several studies investigating the positive effects of probiotic supplementation on cognitive health in animal studies, little research has yet to be done in humans, until recently. Researchers found that that beneficial bacteria living in the gut can work with the gut-brain axis to alleviate anxiety in zebra fish, for example, and determined that probiotic supplementation can reduce anxiety, and depression- and OCD-like symptoms in mice. Very limited evidence of cognitive benefits in humans existed prior to this study.
This new study shows that daily probiotic supplementation of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bacteria can improve cognitive impairment in elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease in as little as 12 weeks.
Researchers enrolled 60 people with Alzheimer’s disease into a double-blind, controlled clinical study to assess the possible benefits of probiotic supplementation on metabolic markers and cognitive function. Participants ranged in ages from 60 to 95 years.
The 30 participants in the test group took probiotics containing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium each day for 12 weeks. The 30 participants in the control group took a placebo.
The researchers administered the mini-mental state examination (MMSE) to all participants before and after the treatment and recorded the scores for each participant. The MMSE questionnaire asks participants for the current date, for example, and has them repeat phrases, count backward from 100 by sevens, and name objects.
The scientists also drew fasting blood samples from all the participants before and after treatment. Blood work included plasma MDA to assess oxidative stress, an hs-CRP test to predict the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood sugar, and tests for insulin resistance, insulin-producing cells, very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL), and triglycerides.
The average MMSE score increased significantly for the probiotic group, jumping from 8.7 to 10.6 out of a maximum score of 30. The MMSE score for the control group declined from 8.5 to 8.0. All participants remained severely cognitively impaired despite the moderate increase in the test group, but the test results are important because they are the first to show that probiotic supplementation can improve human cognition. Future research using larger study groups and longer timeframes can help demonstrate the beneficial effects of longer probiotic treatment.
The probiotic group also had lower levels of triglycerides, VLDL and hs-CRP than did the control group, and their tests for insulin resistance and insulin-producing cells were healthier. These findings suggest the probiotics improve cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease by making metabolic adjustments.
“These findings indicate that change in the metabolic adjustments might be a mechanism by which probiotics affect Alzheimer’s and possibly other neurological disorders,” says Professor Mahmoud Salami from Kashan University, the senior author of the study. “We plan to look at these mechanisms in greater detail in our next study.”
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