Gut feeling: How bacteria could be key to tackling Alzheimer’s

By Our Reporter
A team led by Dr Ibrahim Javed, a nano bio-scientist at the University of South Australia, is investigating how harmful bacteria in the gut might contribute to the development and progression of Alzheimer’s

The old saying “you are what you eat” holds more truth than ever, especially with new research linking diet to brain health. Australian scientists are now delving into the connection between gut health and Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive brain disorder for which there is currently no cure.

A team led by Dr Ibrahim Javed, a nano bio-scientist at the University of South Australia, is investigating how harmful bacteria in the gut might contribute to the development and progression of Alzheimer’s. The research focuses on tiny metabolites released by bad bacteria that can travel to the brain, causing inflammation and damaging neurons.

In younger individuals, a robust blood-brain barrier usually prevents these harmful substances from reaching the brain. However, this barrier weakens with age, allowing these metabolites to inflict damage. An ageing gut microbiome also loses its defensive capabilities, further increasing vulnerability to diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Dr Javed’s research aims to identify the specific metabolites that harm neurons, with the goal of developing drug therapies to block them, potentially slowing or halting the progression of Alzheimer’s. A parallel objective is to explore how probiotics and nutritional supplements might counteract bad bacteria and prevent harmful metabolites from escaping the gut.

This innovative study builds on international clinical research that has shown probiotics can alleviate digestive and cognitive issues, particularly in individuals with COVID-19. Dr Javed noted, “Our research indicates that harmful gut bacteria can trigger early onset dementia as well as accelerate dementia in patients already battling the neurodegenerative disease.”

Diet plays a significant role in maintaining gut health, with poor dietary choices increasing the risk of developing dementia. Factors like ageing, lack of exercise, exposure to pesticides, and genetics also contribute, although genetics account for a small number of cases. Notably, most dementia cases are considered preventable through lifestyle adjustments.

While most bacteria in the gut are harmless and even beneficial, harmful bacteria can create biofilms, leading to gastrointestinal infections, chronic diseases, bowel cancer, and brain diseases. The urgency of this research is underscored by statistics from Alzheimer’s Disease International, which reports that up to 55 million people worldwide suffer from Alzheimer’s, a number expected to double every 20 years due to an ageing population.

Early onset dementia, affecting those under 65, is on the rise globally. This increase is attributed to preventable factors such as poor diet, sedentary lifestyles, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, social isolation, and environmental pollutants like pesticides and air pollution.

In addition to gut bacteria research, Dr Javed’s team is collaborating with Associate Professor Larisa Bobrovskaya, a neuroscientist at UniSA, to examine the potential link between stress and Alzheimer’s, as well as the possibility that women might be at higher risk.

As the understanding of Alzheimer’s disease evolves, these research efforts offer hope for new preventive strategies and treatments, highlighting the critical role of gut health in maintaining overall brain health. By addressing the root causes and enhancing protective factors, scientists aim to pave the way for a future where Alzheimer’s disease is less prevalent and more manageable.

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