Maintaining healthy levels of vitamin D is known to be important for preventing a number of diseases including rickets and osteoporosis. However, the effects of this vitamin appear to be more far-reaching, with new preliminary evidence that it may play a role in keeping our brains healthy.
The study, led by Prof David Smith, looked at the gene for the vitamin D receptor, which manages the body’s response to vitamin D. The scientists compared the vitamin D receptor gene of 255 people with definite or probable Alzheimer’s with 260 healthy controls. They found that two slight changes in the genetic code which makes up the gene were associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.
The exact sequence which makes up a particular gene can vary widely across the human population. Often these differences (called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms or SNPs) have no effect on how the gene works, but occasionally particular SNPs can be linked to disease.
By linking particular SNPs in the vitamin D receptor gene to Alzheimer’s disease, the Oxford team has identified a potential new target for treatment research which they hope further studies will exploit.
Lead author Prof David Smith of Oxford University’s Department of Pharmacology said:
“Vitamin D is now known to play important roles in several organs of the body as well as bone, and the brain in particular is rich in receptors for vitamin D.
“Our work suggests that one of the functions of vitamin D might be to protect the brain from the damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease, but much further research is needed to test this hypothesis.”
Dr Marie Janson of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“It might be tempting to book a sunshine holiday to dose up on vitamin D, but these findings are unfortunately too preliminary at this stage. These results are potentially very interesting and offer scientists an exciting lead to investigate in more detail, however much larger studies are needed before we can draw any firm conclusions.
“Research into dementia is hugely underfunded, and we must invest in projects like these to develop the treatments and preventions that we desperately need. With 820,000 people in the UK living with dementia, and this number set to rise, support for projects such as this is vital.”
The study would not have been possible without a donation from the Oxford University Rueda Komrades who raised £14,000 by holding a record 12-hour Rueda marathon.