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Can fish oil slow Alzheimer’s disease? U-M study will look for answers


ANN ARBOR, MI – Every day, millions of Americans swallow capsules or spoonfuls of fish oil, hoping that the omega-3 fatty acids inside will protect their brains against memory loss and dementia, or have other beneficial effects.

But even though there’s some evidence linking omega-3s to a beneficial effect on the brain, the jury is still out on whether it really works – and therefore whether the supplements are worth the millions of dollars spent on them.

That’s why a new national study has been launched at 51 sites, including the University of Michigan Health System, to test the effects of omega-3s in people with a high immediate risk of brain decline: those in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study may provide answers on whether omega-3 fatty acids can slow the disease’s progression – an important goal considering that 5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s and the number will grow quickly in coming decades.

U-M is now seeking men and women who are 50 years old or older, who have been diagnosed with suspected Alzheimer’s disease and are still in the mild to moderate stages of the disease, to take part in the study. Each participant must have a loved one who is willing to be a “study partner” for the entire 18 months of the study.

The study is one of many offered by the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, one of only 33 federal Alzheimer’s disease centers in the nation and the only one in Michigan. The center, and the study, are funded by the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. More information on the center and its studies, including the fish oil study, is online at

R. Scott Turner, M.D., Ph.D., the Alzheimer’s specialist leading the study at U-M, notes that the new study will specifically look at the effect of DHA, a specific type of omega-3 fatty acid that is thought to act upon cells in the brain.

“It appears that DHA acts as an antioxidant in the brain, and can affect the production of, and protect brain cells against the harmful effects of, amyloid protein,” Turner explains. Amyloid, specifically a form called beta-amyloid, is a leading culprit in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

The new study will randomly assign 60 percent of participants to take four capsules containing DHA each day. The rest will receive placebo capsules that look and smell like the DHA capsules, but that contain no omega-3 fatty acids. Participants can continue to take Alzheimer’s drugs that they’ve been taking for four months or more.

Only by testing DHA in this randomized, placebo-controlled manner will researchers obtain results that they can attribute to the effect of the omega-3 fatty acids, Turner explains.

The active capsules will provide a total of 2 grams of DHA per day. To further control the conditions of the study, participants may not take additional omega-3 supplements and fish oil during the study, and they must agree to limit their consumption of cold-water fish, which naturally contain omega-3 fatty acids.

The study will measure participants’ thinking ability, memory and other attributes at eight points during the study, as well as taking blood samples to look for biomarkers related to Alzheimer’s disease. Some participants may also opt to have MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans of their brain, or to provide other samples for biological testing.

Study participants must be living at home or in an assisted-living facility at the time they join the study; nursing home residents may not take part. People with a history of stroke, or with a current diagnosis of epilepsy, depression, cancer or other major illnesses are not eligible.

At the start of the study, each prospective participant will receive an evaluation that will allow the U-M researchers to confirm suspected Alzheimer’s disease or determine if another form of dementia is causing the symptoms.

Because Alzheimer’s impairs a person’s ability to make judgment decisions, both the subject and his or her study partner will be asked to sign documents consenting to take part in the study. The study partner must be someone who sees the patient at least twice a week and can accompany him or her to all study visits.

The study visits will take place at the General Clinical Research Center’s outpatient clinic, located in the MedInn building on the U-M medical campus. Parking will be provided.

For more information on Alzheimer’s research at the University of Michigan, contact Joanne Lord, Clinical Research Coordinator, at (734) 647-7760, or

For more information on other U-M research studies currently seeking participants, visit the Engage web site at

You can download a printable flyer about this study, in PDF format, here

Written by: Kara Gavin


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