Could feeling hungry help fight Alzheimer’s disease and other symptoms of aging? As far back as the 1930s, researchers have proven that calorie restriction — the much-ballyhooed technique of severely cutting down on how much you eat to lengthen the lifespan — has worked to extend the longevity of lab rodents. However, is it really the near-starvation that helps preserve the mouse brain? Or is it the hormone signals in the brain, sparked by feelings of hunger, that fire up the nerve cells and keep them clear of damaging Alzheimer’s disease plaques?
Yesterday, a team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham published research in open access journal PLOS One which said that it’s the hunger feelings, not going hungry itself, that stimulates the brain.
To test the concept, instead of restricting what the mice could eat, the researchers added a hormone that stimulates the feeling of hunger in a small chocolate pill. A control group had a regular diet, and a second study group had a calorie restricted diet. The mice were tested to see how well they ran mazes, and their brains were later necropsied to see how much of the damaging plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease had formed.
Both calorie restricted mice and hunger hormone taking mice did much better than the untreated mice. In fact, the hunger hormone mice solved a maze test 26 percent faster than the controls, while the calorie restricted mice solved it only 23 percent faster.
A look at the mouse brains showed that the calorie restricted mice had 67 percent fewer plaques, while the hunger hormone mice had 48 percent fewer plaques than the untreated group.
OK, so our rodent friends may not have to keep starving in order to extend their lifespan and their mental alertness. They can just pop a tasty chocolate pill and go about their normal diet.
But what about us? With near-epidemic levels of Alzheimer’s disease in our aging population, we have something of a crisis on our hands. The FDH has recently proposed relaxing the approval status for some drugs that might treat the memory-destroying disease.
The race is on for techniques that might delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease, whether it’s for drugs or lifestyle changes that might fight the disease.
While calorie restriction has been talked about for decades, it presents some serious problems. It works in mice but even with tests going back to the 1980s, it hasn’t been shown to work in primates.
Another challenge is that many Alzheimer’s patients are famously “always hungry,” sometimes to the point where they accuse their caregivers of deliberately starving them. Apparently, the hunger control center of the human brain is one of the places attacked by Alzheimer’s disease. How would a hormone that fuels the feeling of hunger handle that?
Fascinating as it is, the new research that links feelings of hunger and Alzheimer’s disease is probably just the beginning.
[veggie platter photo courtesy DoctorTonyStarkWho via Deviant Art and Creative Commons]