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Scientists to Study Whether Omega-3 Fatty Acid Slows Alzheimer’s disease

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Can an omega-3 fatty acid slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease? Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is one of 52 centers nationwide launching a study to help find the answer.

Nutritionists have long endorsed fish as part of a heart-healthy diet, and now some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids found in the oil of certain fish, algae and human breast milk may also benefit the brain by lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist, supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, will evaluate the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic (DHA) in a clinical trial, the gold standard for medical research.

In recent European studies and the Framingham Heart Study, scientists reported that people with the highest blood levels of DHA were about half as likely to develop dementia as those with lower levels.

“Evidence to date in various research studies that have examined the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on Alzheimer’s disease merits further evaluation,” said Jeff Williamson, M.D., director of the Roena Kulynych Center for Memory and Cognition Research at Wake Forest Baptist. “Our hope is that we may find out that DHA plays a role in slowing the progression of this destructive disease.”

Researchers are seeking 400 participants nationwide who are age 50 and older with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers will primarily evaluate whether taking DHA over many months slows the progression of both cognitive and functional decline in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. During the 18-month clinical trial, investigators will measure the progress of the disease using standard tests for functional and cognitive change.

“Study volunteers will be critical to helping us find out if DHA can make an impact on the disease process,” said Williamson.

Participants will receive either two grams of DHA per day or an inactive placebo pill. About 60 percent of participants will receive DHA, and 40 percent will get the placebo. Doctors and nurses at the 52 research clinic sites will monitor the participants in regular visits throughout the trial. To ensure unbiased results, neither the researchers conducting the trial nor the participants will know who is getting DHA and who is receiving the placebo.

In addition to monitoring disease progression through cognitive tests, researchers will also evaluate whether taking DHA supplements has a positive effect on physical and biological markers of Alzheimer’s, such as brain atrophy and proteins in blood and spinal fluid.

To learn more about participating in the study, call the Kulynych Center recruitment line at 1-877-238-4825 or the NIA’s Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center at 1-800-438-4380, or send an email to adear@nia.nih.gov.

The NIA leads the federal effort that supports and conducts research on aging and the medical, social and behavioral issues of older people, including Alzheimer's disease and age-related cognitive decline. For more information visit the NIA's Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center at www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers, or call 1-800-438-4380. For general information on research and aging, go to www.nia.nih.gov and for information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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Media Contacts: Karen Richardson, krchrdsn@wfubmc.edu; Shannon Koontz, shkoontz@wfubmc.edu; at 336-716-4587.

About Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center: Wake Forest Baptist is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,298 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News & World Report.

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