A team from the Vision Research Centre at Waterford Institute of Technology has discovered that patients with Alzheimer’s disease have significantly worse vision than others in their age group and are more likely to be seriously deficient in carotenoids, key nutrients in the eye.
Providing an exciting basis for further research, the multidisciplinary Waterford study also shows that it is possible to improve the vision of patients with Alzheimer’s disease by providing supplements that include the macular pigment they have a deficiency in.
Published in the internationally-respected Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and funded by the UK-based Howard Foundation, the research was led by the Centre’s Prof John Nolan and Prof Stephen Beatty and Prof Riona Mulcahy, Age-Related Care Unit, University Hospital Waterford. Other members of the research team include Dr Alan Howard, Howard Foundation, Cambridge and creator of the ‘Cambridge Diet’.
Further phases of the research will follow a cohort of patients with early signs of cognitive decline over a three-year period to investigate whether taking specific supplements can arrest the decline in and improve their cognitive function.
Prof Nolan, Principal Investigator at the Vision Research Centre and a Fulbright Scholar, Howard Foundation Chair and European Research Council (ERC)-funded Fellow, said: “Alzheimer’s is one of the most prevalent diseases of older age and the single most common form of dementia which affects an estimated 48,000 Irish people. In the absence of a cure for Alzheimer’s, it is vital that we look at risk factors and establish patterns between Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions.
“What our research has found is that patients with Alzheimer’s disease not only have lower cognition but also considerably poorer vision compared to their peers of the same age without Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, we have found that those with Alzheimer’s are significantly lacking in lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin. These nutrients are known as dietary carotenoids and at the back of the eye where they are vitally important, they are referred to as macular pigment.
“Stepping on from this finding, we were keen to establish whether it was possible to help restore some of the vision that has been lost in those with Alzheimer’s. Our trials using supplements that are rich in carotenoids found that patients did indeed experience improved vision as their macular pigment was boosted.”
Prof Beatty added: “This research is recognised as having tremendous potential to help a great many people as it is further developed and it is particularly exciting to see clinically meaningful improvements in the eyesight of those Alzheimer’s patients who received supplements with carotenoids for six months.
“The research outcomes support the view that the Alzheimer’s patients in the study are well capable of responding to and benefiting from carotenoids but have not had them sufficiently present in their diet. At a societal level, this also serves to underline once again the importance of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables in reducing our risk of various debilitating conditions as we get older.”
Prof Mulcahy said: “From my perspective as someone working at the hospital every day with older people – and indeed younger patients - with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, it is very encouraging to see the outcomes of this research and I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous generosity and openness of those who have participated in the studies to date.
“There is still a great body of further research work to be done but we have a solid basis to build from. Given the growing prevalence of Alzheimer’s and our ageing population, there is a real urgency to make progress in this field and that challenge brings exciting opportunities to collaborate with colleagues from other disciplines.”
Committed to studying links between human nutrition and wellbeing, the Vision Research Centre is based at WIT’s West Campus in Carriganore. While it will be commencing further research programmes towards the year-end, it is not currently recruiting trial patients.