How do genetics influence the brain’s response to omega-3?

Lead researcher: Professor Anne-Marie Minihane

Institution: University of East Anglia

Grant type: PhD

Duration: 3 years

Amount: £83,525

Scientific title: APOE genotype, brain n-3 fatty acid status and cognition

Why did we fund this project? 

Comments from the Research Network

'A well-structured, solid and useful proposal... An add-on to a previous study, this work may help to reduce the risk of AD.'

'Investing in the development of future research capability whilst exploring one of the most common genetic risk factors for AD looks like an attractive proposition. The support, facilities and ability to work with other researchers are a strong feature of this proposal.'

'If successful this would be a significant advance while the wait continues for effective drug treatments.'

What do we already know?

Evidence is building that the way we live our lives could influence our risk of developing dementia. Researchers are increasingly focusing on finding out whether changes to our lifestyle could slow cognitive decline or delay the onset of dementia.

Omega-3 is a type of chemical called a fatty acid that is found in oily fish such as herring, tuna and salmon. There are high levels of omega-3 in our brain cells, where it performs important roles in helping the cells maintain their structure and to function correctly. There is some evidence that people affected by Alzheimer's disease may have low levels of omega-3 in their brain cells but the results from studies investigating this have been inconclusive. 

There is some research that indicates that genetics may a play a role in how the body responds to omega-3. There is particular interest in the ApoE gene, which is the strongest known genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. There are different versions of ApoE and one version, ApoE4, has been linked to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. The researchers believe that the ApoE4 version of the gene could prevent the brain from being able to use omega-3 properly.

What does this project involve?

The PhD student on this project will investigate whether ApoE4 can have an effect on the way the body responds to omega-3 and whether this is linked to problems with memory. The student will see if mice that have different versions of the ApoE gene have different responses to special diets. Some of these diets contain high omega-3 and others will have low amounts. The student will then see if any of the diets can affect learning and memory abilities in the mice. The project will also support two existing studies into the effects of diet and ApoE on memory and learning.

The aim is to use the information gained from this study to find out whether there is a dietary strategy that may benefit people at high risk of developing dementia by promoting brain health. The researchers hope that this study will lead to the design of a trial to test the effectiveness of the diet when it comes to slowing or preventing cognitive decline. 

How will this benefit people affected by dementia?

There are currently 850,000 people affected by dementia in the UK and the available treatments do not modify the underlying causes of the condition. Finding a way to delay the onset of the condition, especially for people who are thought to be at higher risk, would be a very important step in reducing the number of people that will be affected in the future. This study will improve our understanding of how we can achieve this goal.