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Vitamin B 'could slow Alzheimer's'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 09 September 2010

Vitamin B could slow the progress of dementia, a new study finds – but scientists warn Channel 4 News patients should not start taking the vitamin immediately without consulting with their doctor, as some studies have linked it to cancer.

Vitamin B can halve the rate of brain shrinkage in elderly people and delay the onset of Alzheimer's (Getty)

The research showed that large daily doses of vitamin B can halve the rate of brain shrinkage in elderly people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a precursor to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

Brain atrophy, which is a natural part of ageing, is known to happen faster in people with MCI who go on to develop Alzheimer's.

The British-led scientists believe the vitamin treatment could delay or even prevent development of the disease.

The findings, published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE, could prove a revolutionary weapon against age-related memory loss and Alzheimer's.

But, the study's lead clinician, Robin Jacoby, who is also a Trustee at the Alzheimer's Society, told Channel 4 News that people need to get more information before taking the vitamins.

He said: "No one should self-medicate and start taking vitamin B without consulting their doctor.

"The possible adverse effects of taking B vitamins, in particular folic acid without taking B12, is that you're liable to damage your neurological system.

"There is known to be a risk of developing cancer from long-term use, but it wasn't found in this study," he said.

Scientists are now seeking funding for another trial which will examine the brain's cognitive development.

"This study was statistically powered to look at radiological findings of the brain. But the next study needs at least 1000 people to find out  whether  or not the vitamins deliver any significant improvement to cognitive development," he said.

Visiting Professor to Oxford University, Helga Refsum, has told Channel 4 News that taking high doses of vitamin B can be dangerous.

"Nearly all drugs have side effects and we have to recognise that in this dosage, B vitamins are being used as a drug and not a dietary supplement.

"You'd never start taking blood pressure tablets or antibiotics if you were healthy and you should never take high doses of B vitamins if you're healthy, because it's likely to cause more harm than benefits," she said.  

'Dramatic result'
Professor David Smith, one of the study leaders from the Department of Pharmacology at Oxford University, said: "This is a very striking, dramatic result. It's much more than we could have predicted.

"It is our hope that this simple and safe treatment will delay the development of Alzheimer's disease in many people who suffer from mild memory problems."

But he warned people not to rush into taking high doses of vitamin B to ward off mental decline, even though the study results were "immensely promising".

The long-term effects of taking big doses of the vitamins are not known, he said.

Researchers at Oxford University, assisted by colleagues in Norway, used an advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique to study brain shrinkage in 168 volunteers over the age of 70 with diagnosed MCI.

Over a period of two years, half were given a daily tablet containing high doses of the B vitamins folate, B6 and B12. The rest received a "dummy" placebo pill with no active ingredients.

At the end of the trial the effects of the vitamin treatment were found to be dramatic, and most pronounced in participants who started out with the highest rates of brain shrinkage.

On average, taking B vitamins slowed the rate of brain atrophy by 30 per cent, and in some cases reductions as high as 53 per cent were seen.

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