The Mediterranean diet is associated with a variety of health benefits, including a lower incidence of dementia. Now, researchers at Temple University (LKSOM) have identified a specific ingredient that protects against cognitive decline: extra-virgin olive oil. In a study published in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology, the researchers show that the consumption of extra-virgin olive oil protects memory and learning ability and reduces the formation of amyloid-beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain — classic markers of Alzheimer’s disease.
Previous studies have suggested that the widespread use of extra-virgin olive oil in the diets of people living in the Mediterranean areas is largely responsible for the many health benefits linked to the Mediterranean diet. In order to investigate the relationship between extra-virgin olive oil and dementia, Temple researchers used a well-established Alzheimer’s disease mouse model. Known as a triple transgenic model, the animals develop three key characteristics of the disease: memory impairment, amyloid plagues, and neurofibrillary tangles.
The researchers divided the animals into two groups, one that received a chow diet enriched with extra-virgin olive oil (extra-virgin olive oil group) and one that received the regular chow diet without it (control group). The olive oil was introduced into the diet when the mice were six months old, before symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease begin to emerge in the animal model. In overall appearance, there was no difference between the two groups of animals.
However, at age 9 months and 12 months, mice in the extra virgin olive oil group performed significantly better on tests designed to evaluate working memory, spatial memory, and learning abilities. Studies of brain tissue from both groups revealed dramatic differences in nerve cell appearance and function. One thing that stood out immediately was synaptic integrity, i.e., the integrity of the connections between neurons, which were preserved in animals in the extra-virgin olive oil group. In addition, compared to mice in the control group, brain cells from animals in the olive oil group showed a dramatic increase in nerve cell autophagy activation.
The Temple team identified two mechanisms underlying the protective effects of extra-virgin olive oil: brain inflammation reduction and autophagy activation. Autophagy is the process by which cells break down and clear out intracellular debris and toxins, such as amyloid plaques and tau tangles. Brain cells from extra-virgin olive oil group had higher levels of autophagy and reduced levels of amyloid plaques and phosphorylated tau. The latter substance, phosphorylated tau, is responsible for neurofibrillary tangles, suspected culprits for Alzheimer’s memory symptoms.
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Elisabetta Lauretti, Luigi Iuliano, Domenico Pratic; Extra-virgin olive oil ameliorates cognition and neuropathology of the 3xTg mice: role of autophagy. Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology, 2017; DOI: 10.1002/acn3.431
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