Scientists find surprising link between intermittent fasting and Alzheimer’s disease

Study has now shed light on the potential benefits of time-restricted feeding in alleviating these circadian disruptions.

[Dec. 29, 2023: JJ Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative disorder that affects the brain and its ability to function properly. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Alzheimer’s disease, a menacing neurodegenerative disorder that affects over 6 million Americans, is often accompanied by disruptions in the body’s circadian rhythm. Such disruptions have devastating impacts, worsening cognitive function at night and causing sleep issues. Interestingly, while this has long been considered a symptom of Alzheimer's, emerging evidence suggests it might be a driver of the disease itself.

A groundbreaking study from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine has now shed light on the potential benefits of time-restricted feeding in alleviating these circadian disruptions. This novel approach could potentially redefine how we perceive and treat Alzheimer’s disease, turning our focus to our daily eating habits.

For the uninitiated, the circadian rhythm is our internal biological clock. It governs a myriad of our physiological processes, including our sleep/wake cycle. As per recent estimates, a staggering 80% of Alzheimer’s patients experience disruptions in this rhythm. This includes a range of symptoms from sleep disturbances to heightened cognitive impairment during nighttime.

Dr. Paula Desplats, the senior study author and professor in the Department of Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine, emphasized the importance of understanding these disruptions.

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“For many years, we assumed that the circadian disruptions seen in people with Alzheimer’s are a result of neurodegeneration,” Desplats said. "But now, evidence suggests that circadian disruption might be a primary driver of Alzheimer's pathology."

Time-Restricted Feeding: A Potential Solution

Time-restricted feeding (TRF) is a subset of intermittent fasting. Unlike other fasting methods that may restrict calorie intake, TRF solely limits the window of eating. The recent study, published in Cell Metabolism, explored the potential of TRF in mice models mimicking Alzheimer's disease.

The mice on a TRF schedule were restricted to eat within a six-hour window, translating to about 14 hours of fasting daily for humans. The outcomes were promising.

This confocal microscopy image shows amyloid plaques (blue and red) in the brain of a mouse. The accumulation of amyloid plaques is the most well-documented biochemical hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. (CREDIT: UC San Diego Health Sciences)

Compared to their counterparts who had unrestricted access to food, the TRF mice showcased enhanced memory, reduced nighttime hyperactivity, and exhibited a consistent sleep pattern. Moreover, these mice outperformed the control group in cognitive assessments, emphasizing that TRF might curb the behavioral manifestations of Alzheimer’s.

Molecular Revelations: More Than Meets the Eye

Delving deeper, the researchers discovered molecular-level improvements in the TRF mice. There was differential expression of multiple genes related to Alzheimer’s and neuroinflammation. Most notably, TRF reduced the accumulation of amyloid proteins in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

Daniel Whittaker, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Desplats Lab at UC San Diego School of Medicine, led the mouse experiments and data analysis for the study. (CREDIT: UC San Diego Health Sciences)

The capability of a mere adjustment in feeding schedules to modify Alzheimer’s progression at the molecular level is nothing short of revolutionary. The beauty of this approach lies in its simplicity – it mandates a lifestyle change instead of drug-based interventions.

“If we can reproduce our results in humans, this approach could be a simple way to dramatically improve the lives of people living with Alzheimer’s and those who care for them,” remarked Desplats.

The Bigger Picture: Implications for Healthcare and Caregiving

Such a treatment avenue could substantially transform how we approach Alzheimer's, especially given that circadian disruptions are a primary reason many Alzheimer's patients are moved to nursing homes. "Anything we can do to help patients restore their circadian rhythm will make a huge difference in how we manage Alzheimer’s," Desplats pointed out.

The potential for TRF to modify the course of Alzheimer’s holds significant promise. Should these results be replicated in human clinical trials, we might be on the cusp of a paradigm shift in Alzheimer’s treatment. And the solution could be as simple as changing when we eat.

Disclaimer: While these findings are promising, readers are advised against making drastic lifestyle changes without consulting healthcare professionals.

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.