May 9, 1997

Vitamin E found to slow Alzheimer’s march

Vitamin E found to slow Alzheimer's march

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Dr. Richard Margolin

Vitamin E is showing remarkable effectiveness in reducing damage to the brain in patients with mid- to late-stage Alzheimer's disease, a new national study has found.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center was one of 23 centers nationwide participating in the study, which focused on the role of vitamin E and the drug selegiline. The two-year study's results were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"For the first time we are seeing a drug that may halt the progression of Alzheimer's disease rather then just treat the symptoms," said Dr. Richard A. Margolin, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Radiology and leader of VUMC's portion of the study.

The randomized clinical trail compared the effects of 2,000 International Units (IU) of vitamin E, triple the dose found in many health food store preparations, 10 milligrams of selegiline, or a combination of these two agents, and found that the functional deterioration seen in moderately severe Alzheimer's disease patients was slowed.

Vitamin E, a lipid-soluble antioxidant, works by protecting the neurons in the brain from oxidative injury damage by free radicals, harmful molecules that damage cells.

Selegiline, may slow Alzheimer's disease through its ability to increase catecholamine levels in the brain.

Catecholamines, which are found in decreased levels in Alzheimer's patients, enhance communication between neurons. Previous studies showed that selegiline produced a small but significant improvement in memory, attention, and verbal fluency.

Studies have yet to be conducted on whether vitamin E could actually prevent the disease, but vitamin E has proven to delay the disease's degeneration to severe dementia, institutionalization, and death, Margolin said.

The study followed patients through four end-points: death, entry into a nursing home, loss of the ability to perform activities of daily living, or severe dementia.

On average, there was a seven month increase in the time it took to reach one of the end-points for those patients that received either selegiline or vitamin E.

"Our hope is that we can delay the severe onset of this disease until more treatment options are explored," Margolin said. "This would especially relieve some of the pain of watching a loved one suffering from Alzheimer's Disease."

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive degenerative disease that ultimately results in severe mental deterioration. It particularly affects the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus, areas involved in cognitive functions and memory.

"We have two drugs that have been marketed for the symptomatic treatment of Alzheimer's disease. But both of these are symptomatic treatments that do not affect the ultimate course of the disease," said Margolin.

The concept that vitamin E could impact the progression of Alzheimer's is a major development in the treatment of the disease, said Margolin.