Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

Daily nutritional drink could slow Alzheimer’s progression

An image of a mouse brain showing symptoms of Alzheimer's disease; plaques of protein (blue) among blood vessels (red) and nerves (green). Researchers believe a nutritional drink may slow early development of the disease. Image credit: flickr/ZEISS Microscopy and Alvin Gogineni
An image of a mouse brain showing symptoms of Alzheimer's disease; plaques of protein (blue) among blood vessels (red) and nerves (green). Researchers believe a nutritional drink may slow early development of the disease. Image credit: flickr/ZEISS Microscopy and Alvin Gogineni

A nutritional drink has been shown to reduce brain shrinkage, conserve memory and maintain the ability to think and perform everyday tasks in people with early stage Alzheimer’s, indicating that it could slow the advancement of the disease.

It’s the first evidence of an effective nutritional treatment aimed at people who are in the very early, pre-dementia stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Issue

In 2012, 8.4 million people aged 60 years or above were suffering from dementia in the EU, accounting for 7 % of people in that age group. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, representing about 60 % to 80 % of cases.

It is one of the most important causes of disability among the elderly, placing a large burden not only on sufferers, but also on carers and there is currently no cure.

Under the Horizon 2020 funding programme, the European Union has so far dedicated EUR 87.5 million to understanding how dementia works and can be treated, which comes on top of EUR 584 million spent under the previous funding programme. 

The drink, Souvenaid, which is produced by a Dutch company, Nutricia, contains a patented combination of fatty acids, vitamins and other nutrients known as Fortasyn Connect. It is designated by the EU as a food for special medical purposes and was tested in a two-year trial run by the EU-funded LipiDiDiet project.

The trial found that people who drank Souvenaid once a day had almost 40 % less shrinkage in the hippocampal brain area, which is involved in storing memories, compared to people who drank a control drink containing the same amount of calories. 

The results, which were presented at the 2016 Advances in Alzheimer’s Therapy congress in Athens, Greece, on 10 March, also show that if people begin taking the nutritional drink early then it could preserve their memory and help them carry on performing everyday tasks, such as paying bills, for longer. 

‘(The) results are extremely valuable as they bring us closer to understanding the impact of nutritional interventions on prodromal AD (early-stage Alzheimer’s disease), which we are now better at diagnosing but unable to treat due to a lack of approved pharmaceutical options,’ said Professor Hilkka Soininen from the University of Eastern Finland who headed the clinical trial.

Combination of nutrients

While it has been known for a long time that certain nutrients can protect the brain, Professor Tobias Hartmann from Saarland University, Germany, who coordinates the LipiDiDiet project, says the power of the drink comes from the combination of nutrients.

‘The key is combining certain nutrients, in order to increase their effect.’

Professor Tobias Hartmann, Saarland University, Germany

‘Single nutrients simply aren’t powerful enough to fight a disease like Alzheimer’s alone,’ he said. ‘Today’s clinical trial results have shown that the key is combining certain nutrients, in order to increase their effect.’ 

The primary aim of the trial was to determine the effect of Souvenaid on overall cognitive function - a broad measure of thinking - but the researchers found no benefit on this measure. However, Prof. Hartmann suggested that the most likely reason was that cognitive decline over the course of the study was too small to produce significant results.

The trial was part of LipiDiDiet’s work to investigate how nutrition – particularly some omega-3 fatty acids – can help cognitive performance in ageing, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and to develop a lipid-based diet that does this. It builds on work from an earlier EU-funded project, Lipidiet.

The results of the trial come on the back of a commitment by Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, to set up a Food Research Area to promote research and innovation to help tackle hunger, malnutrition and food and diet-related illnesses.

More info