Behind the headlines: could a nutrient drink slow down Alzheimer’s disease?
By Katy Stubbs | Tuesday 31 October 2017
You may have seen stories in the media that a nutritional drink can slow down Alzheimer’s disease by reducing brain shrinkage and improving memory, but what is this drink and what is the science behind these claims?
What is the nutritional drink?
The drink is called Souvenaid, which contains a special blend of essential fatty acids, vitamins and other nutrients called Fortasyn Connect. Souvenaid is approved as a food for medical purposes for people in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s and is available over the counter at around £3.50 for a daily bottle.
What is its link with Alzheimer’s disease?
The special nutrient blend in Souvenaid is designed to support nerve cell connections in the brain. We know in Alzheimer’s that these connections go wrong, affecting the brain’s ability to transmit messages through networks of nerve cells, and that this underlies the symptoms people experience in the disease. In laboratory studies using cells and mice, the nutrient blend was found to support these connections, so the scientists wanted to see whether similar effects would be seen in people with Alzheimer’s.
Why is it hitting the headlines?
Souvenaid is in the news as the results of a study into it, called the LipiDiDiet trial, have been published in the scientific journal Lancet Neurology.
For this trial, a group of European scientists came together to test Souvenaid in people with mild memory problems, known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which can later develop into Alzheimer’s disease. Across Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, 311 volunteers were recruited into the LipiDiDiet trial, based on brain scans or tests of brain and spinal fluid to identify those who were most likely to be in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Around half (153 people) were randomly assigned to take Souvenaid and the other half (158 people) to take a control drink, which did not contain the special blend of nutrients.
The volunteers were asked to take their drink once a day, and to do so for two years. During this time, they were given MRI brain scans, as well as a range of memory and thinking tests, which would allow the scientists to measure any changes that Souvenaid may have.
What did the study find?
Before the start of the trial, the scientists decided on a comprehensive measure that they would use to judge whether Souvenaid had benefits for the people who took it, which they called their ‘primary outcome’. They also decided on some other measures that could provide a bit more information on how how the drink may be working, known as ‘secondary outcomes’.
The LipiDiDiet study failed to meet its primary outcome, and did not show improvements in a thorough measure of memory and thinking skills. Souvenaid was found to have positive effects in some of the secondary outcomes, such as a reduction in brain shrinkage and improvements in one particular assessment of the severity of a person’s signs and symptoms. However, taking Souvenaid did not reduce the number of people going on to develop Alzheimer’s disease over the course of the two-year study.
It is always important to consider the methods researchers used when we consider the findings of a trial. Our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr David Reynolds, had this to say about the study:
“As this was a relatively small study, it is difficult to detect any signs of an effect or to draw any firm conclusions from the results the researchers saw. Larger studies will need to investigate whether the effects of the drink are just too small to robustly measure or whether our tools for assessing benefits so early in the disease are not sensitive enough to properly determine its value.
Bottom line – so does it work and should I take it?
We cannot conclusively say from this study that Souvenaid does have benefits for people with very early memory problems – the main aim was not met and so this study was essentially unsuccessful. It is an important principle in scientific research that you define your key measure of success before you get your results. Anything other than this could be like missing a shot on goal, moving the goalposts and saying you scored.
However, there are interesting findings in the secondary outcomes, linking the drink to reduced brain shrinkage and some positive benefits measured by a second type of memory and thinking test. These observations are worthy of more detailed follow-up to try to understand what these effects mean and why they didn’t translate into an overall slowing in memory, thinking and progression to Alzheimer’s. The current study was small and so larger studies could help to tease out any real effects from background noise, and provide a clearer view of what these mixed results really mean.
The study does show that Souvenaid is safe, as there were no side effects related to taking the drink. The drink was also well tolerated, as there was not a high dropout rate of people from the study.
So while the evidence indicates that Souvenaid is unlikely to do you any harm, there is no robust evidence at the moment that it slows cognitive decline in people with early memory and thinking problems.
If you are concerned about your memory or are considering buying and taking Souvenaid, it is important to discuss this decision with your GP.