So, this blog takes on a bit more of a personal tone as I explore the associations between genes, nutrition, and brain health.
I dedicate it to my family, as well as my friends and other families whose lives are touched by someone they love who is experiencing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or any one of a number of other neurodegenerative disorders.
The Diagnosis of an Unhealthy Brain
Approximately 5 years ago in her late 60s, my mom was diagnosed with parkinsonism.
After a couple of years, it became evident that she was developing symptoms different and/or more advanced than others in her Parkinson’s support group.
An examination by a neurospecialist revealed a few months ago that she had a progressive form of parkinsonism labeled PSP and FTD: Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and FrontoTemporal Dementia.
To the uninformed, these can be scary and intimidating words. What do they mean? What can we expect? Most people know what Parkinson’s disease is. But what are PSP and FTD, exactly?
I sure didn’t know. But I have found knowledge to be a great mitigator of fear and uncertainty. So I began my search; my research.
I found that “supranuclear” and “frontotemporal” are terms used to simply identify different areas of the brain where nerve cells are not working correctly. PSP and FTD are diseases of particular areas of the brain, slightly different areas than those defined by the name of Parkinson’s disease, in which the nerve cells are dying at a faster rate than they can be replaced, resulting in slightly different symptoms than Parkinson’s.
The reality that is emerging in medical science as a result of genetic data and a better understanding of cellular physiology (and pathology) is that Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, PSP, FTD, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis / motor neuron disease, also known in the US as Lou Gehrig’s disease), corticobasal degeneration (CBD), and Pick’s disease (frontotemporal lobe degeneration, FTLD) are all part of a spectrum of brain disorders that share a common feature……abnormal clumps of a particular protein within the nerve cells.
This protein is called “tau” and this spectrum of diseases in the brain is, therefore, often referred to as the “tauopathies.”
Alzhiemer’s and Parkinson’s diseases have been more publicized over the past few years so, in an ironic sort of way, the fear of the unknown is minimized with the knowledge (and thus expectation) that Alzheimer’s is predominantly a disease of progressive severe dementia, while Parkinson’s is a disease primarily of progressive muscle dyscoordination. Genetically, a correlation in risk of poor brain health in Parkinson’s has been identified with variations in several genes (ie, Apo E, COMT, MAPT, GBA).
FTD, I have since learned, encompasses a range of symptoms that involve a progressive change in behavior and/or language. Symptoms can include disinhibition, apathy, changes in eating behavior (ie, overeating, carbohydrate cravings), and compulsive behaviors, particularly those involving word games and puns. Mutations in a variety of genes have also been associated with FTD (ie, C9orf72, MAPT, and GRN). FTD is more common than Alzheimer’s disease as the cause of dementia in individuals less than 60 years old.
[Note, however, that neurological diseases, it is now believed, often begin to occur 10 to 30 years before symptoms appear.]
FTD and ALS have also recently been linked, via the discovery of shared genetic mutations (ie, C9orf72) and a common mechanism of pathogenesis. Individuals with ALS generally experience degeneration of nerve cells that innervate their muscles, leading to progressive muscular atrophy. Although, overlapping ALS-FTD symptoms are now being recognized.
Similar associations have been identified between PSP and CBD, including tau-immunoreactive brain lesions and a shared inheritance (ie, the H1 genotype). These 2 diseases are characterized by unstable posture, parkinsonism symptoms that do not respond to the typical treatment with levodopa, and disturbances in controlling eye movements, vocalizations, and swallowing.
The Role of Food
If you read my previous blog, How Unhealthy Food Can Cause Disease, you may recall that unhealthy lifestyle habits (ie, eating nutrient-poor foods, lack of exercise, etc.) create a stressful environment for your cells and can result in accumulation of misfolded proteins.
These misfolded proteins eventually prevent your cells from functioning correctly, so they are shut down and replaced with healthy cells.
Chronic exposure to a stressful environment, however, prevents your body from being able to maintain a healthy balance of replacing unproductive dying cells with healthy productive cells; and this leads to more and more unproductive dying cells, disease, and premature death of tissues and organs.
Here are a couple of examples to illustrate the point:
When you consistently eat sugary foods, it requires cells in your pancreas to constantly produce insulin in order to handle all the sugar. Working this hard, stresses the cells and leads to the misfolding of the protein insulin in your pancreas and insulin resistance. A precursor to obesity and diabetes.
When you chronically eat foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol, and low in healthy omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), such as fish oils, it stresses your brain cells and leads to unhealthy inflammatory responses and the accumulation of tau proteins. Increasing your risk of dementia and the tauopathies.
Your Brain on Food
Your brain has the second highest concentration of lipid (fat) concentration in your body, second only to your fat cells. Certain fats, specifically the omega-3 fatty acids, play a critical role in the health of your brain.
The omega-3 fatty acids, especially docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, are a primary source of energy for your brain cells, plus they play crucial roles in maintaining normal nerve cell function.
A diet that is continually low or lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, and high in unhealthy saturated fats and cholesterol, leads to increased production of the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and is associated with dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Chronic exposure to certain whole foods has also been linked to the development of tauopathies. Initially identified in a population of people in Guadeloupe who regularly consumed tropical fruits (paw paw) or herbal teas (boldo), a compound (TIQ) was associated with PSP and atypical parkinsonism that were prevalent in that community. TIQs, additionally, were found to have a direct toxic effect on the nerve cells that use dopamine.
TIQs are also found in varying amounts in cheese, milk, eggs, cocoa, and bananas.
The Fat Metabolism Gene
Because the brain relies heavily on fats for energy, issues or imbalances related to lipid metabolism pose significant problems for the health of nerve cells.
One of the most important genes that has been identified that dictates how your body uses, or does not use, fat for energy is the apolipoprotein E (Apo E) gene.
For example, if you have the Apo E2 genotype, then your body prefers fat as its fuel source rather than carbohydrates. In contrast, if you have the Apo E4 gene, your body cannot use high amounts of fats and, instead, is better at using certain types of carbohydrates.
Apo E also happens to be the main protein in your body that carries cholesterol to the brain.
Genetic mutations in the Apo E gene have been associated with poor mental function in individuals with Parkinson’s, and the Apo E4 gene has been determined to be a significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
So, in a similar way that diabetes is a metabolic disease of the body, the spectrum of neurodegenerative diseases that include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, supranuclear palsy, frontotemporal dementia, and motor neuron disease, is a metabolic disease of the brain.
And diets that continuously include high levels of sugars, processed carbohydrates, saturated fats, and omega-6 fatty acids are known to significantly increase your risk of these preventable, chronic diseases.
So please choose healthy food for happier genes!
Continue to follow me to learn more.
In a few months, my family will be getting our genetic analysis. In the meantime, we’ve started my mom on high-quality fish oil and with the help of her physicians will be monitoring her AA:EPA, TG:HDL, and HbA1c. Check out my blog from last week, Expert Advice – The Mediterranean Zone, to understand more about fish oil and monitoring its use.
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