In a study published in the September 9, 2008, issue of the journal Neurology®, researchers from Oxford University and the University of Oslo report an association between decreased levels of vitamin B12 and a decline in brain volume. Reduced brain volume, or brain atrophy, has been associated with Alzheimer's disease, and is used as a marker of the disease's progression.
The study included 107 participants in the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Aging (OPTIMA), who did not have cognitive impairment upon enrollment. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brain, cognitive assessments, and physical examinations were conducted at the beginning of the study and annually over a five year period. Blood plasma samples collected upon enrollment and yearly thereafter were analyzed for folate, B12, homocysteine, and the vitamin B12 markers holotranscobalamin, transcobalamin saturation and methylmalonic acid.
Comparison of MRI images obtained at the beginning of the study with those scanned after five years found a greater amount of brain volume loss among participants with low plasma levels of vitamin B12. Subjects whose plasma B12 levels were among the lowest one-third of participants at less than 308 picomoles per liter had a six times greater adjusted risk of increased brain volume loss than those whose vitamin B12 levels were in the top two-thirds. Similar patterns were observed for holotranscobalamin and transcobalamin saturation.
Although the initially observed association between increased homocysteine and brain atrophy disappeared in the adjusted analysis, the authors note that high homocysteine levels have been suggested as a risk factor for the condition. Elevated homocysteine has been associated with cognitive decline and dementia onset in a number of studies, and is related to insufficient levels of vitamin B12 and folate. Another proposed explanation for the current study's findings are the lesions that have been observed in the brains of individuals with vitamin B12 deficiency, however, none of the participants in the current study were classified as deficient.
"Previous research on the vitamin has had mixed results and few studies have been done specifically with brain scans in elderly populations," noted lead author Anna Vogiatzoglou, MSc, of the University of Oxford's Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics. "We tested for vitamin B12 levels in a unique, more accurate way by looking at two certain markers for it in the blood."
"Many factors that affect brain health are thought to be out of our control, but this study suggests that simply adjusting our diets to consume more vitamin B12 through eating meat, fish, fortified cereals or milk may be something we can easily adjust to prevent brain shrinkage and so perhaps save our memory," she advised. "Research shows that vitamin B12 deficiency is a public health problem, especially among the elderly, so more vitamin B12 intake could help reverse this problem."
Related Health Concern: Mild Cognitive Impairment
Researchers have discovered multiple factors that influence our ability to think and remember as we age. These include well-known culprits such as alcohol abuse, and also newly discovered causes of mental decline, including chronic inflammation, vascular diseases, and even stress.
A typical American diet does not provide enough essential vitamins. Worse yet, older people are at greater risk for vitamin deficiency because they tend to eat less, although their requirements for certain vitamins, such as B6, actually rise with age. Older people may also have problems with efficient absorption of nutrients from food. Even healthy older people often exhibit deficiencies in vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folate.
Vitamins are involved in biochemical processes throughout the body and appear to be involved in protecting and enhancing cognitive function. In particular, the B vitamins play an integral role in the functioning of the nervous system and help the brain synthesize chemicals that affect mood. A balanced complex of the B vitamins is essential for energy and for balancing hormone levels. An article in the Journal of Psychopharmacology described a study of 76 older men who were given vitamin B6 or placebo and then tested on memory function. The authors concluded that vitamin B6 improved storage and information retrieval (Deijen JB et al 1992).
Another study reviewed vitamin B12 deficiency in relation to memory impairment and neuropathy in older people and concluded that both memory impairment and neuropathy can be successfully managed with vitamin B12 injections or supplementation (Carmel R 1996). One study determined that low levels of folate (a B vitamin) are associated with cognitive deficits and that patients treated with folic acid for 60 days showed a significant improvement in both memory and attention efficiency (Fioravanti MFE 1997).