In what’s believed to be the first clinical trial of its kind, the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute enrolled 65 individuals with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s to measure the effects of coconut oil -- versus placebo -- on the disease.
While there is currently no clinical data showing the benefits of coconut oil on the prevention and treatment of dementia, Newport -- whose husband Steve was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 51 -- said she began to see improvements after starting him on four teaspoons of coconut oil per day.
“Before the coconut oil, he could not tie his shoes. His weird slow gait … That improved. He walked normally and he was able to start running again. He was able to start reading again, his conversation improved dramatically and then over several months we saw improvements in his memory,” Newport said.
Prior to starting him on coconut oil, Newport said none of the existing medications were working.
“He got to the point that he had a tremor when he tried to eat or talk,” she said.
That’s when she began looking into ketones: molecules of organic fuel produced when your body burns fat.
“Our brains rely on glucose from carbohydrates. But if that isn’t available, because we haven’t eaten anything or are on a low-carbohydrate diet, then our brain cells switch to using the energy from our fat. This energy comes in the form of small molecules called ketones,” Newport explained.
And according to some scientists, coconut oil is a source of food that the body can easily convert into ketones.
Canadian researcher, Stephen Cunnane studies brain metabolism at Universite de Sherbrooke. His question: How do you revive aging or diseased brain cells in the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s?
Using PET scans, he found that ketones are indeed a possible alternative brain fuel, sharing similar excitement to Newport.
"The reason it is exciting, it suggests the brain is starving as you slip into Alzheimer’s disease. If you can provide an alternative fuel there may be an alternative to resuscitate parts of the brain," said Prof. Cunnane.
But he is also urging caution -- and for more research to get underway quickly. With a huge list of failed treatments for dementia, he knows families are searching for new options that have scientific backing.
“We don't want to give a wrong impression that we have a magic solution … and we have to understand why the coconut oil might be beneficial and at what doses," said Cunnane.
The USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute has already tackled other, out of the box ideas for stalling the mental decline of Alzheimer’s -- like Ginkgo biloba, Vitamin E or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, finding no benefit.
After five years of resistance from the medical community, Newport was able to convince the Institute researchers to launch this one-of-a-kind study of coconut oil, after receiving a $250,000 grant from a private foundation.
“Mary has been very persistent in asking us to move forward with this and as a scientist I like to find out if there is any real scientific basis,” said Dave Morgan, CEO of the Institute and professor of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology, and director of Neuroscience Research at the University of South Florida.
The pharmaceutical industry is in this -- of course to make money for their companies, and of course they want to help people theoretically -- but at the end of the day it is about dollars and sense, and so money gets invested in things that are new or patentable rather than things that are sitting on the shelf already,” said Amanda Smith, Medical Director, University of South Florida (USF) Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, Tampa Florida.
”There is no one who really stands to benefit from this except the patients. For us that is enough, that is our mission, that is who we want to help,” she explained.
The Florida researchers hope to have results within a year.
“I am thrilled they are open-minded enough thinking outside the box that this is possible and that they are embarking on a study. Physicians will start to recommend it to patients if they see results so we can only hope that they start to see results,” said Dr. Newport.
Steve Newport has since suffered a stroke and is now incapacitated, and his health has declined in the past year. His wife Mary says Alzheimer’s may ultimately win, but his case has given medicine a new clue.
“Given what else is out there -- which is nothing right now -- hopefully this is something that people can incorporate into their diet that can delay the onset of the disease or slow down progress of the disease for several years said,” said Newport.