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Olive oil has always been associated with healthy benefits – the staple of the Mediterranean diet is loaded with antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties. Now, it’s even linked to a sharper mind. Researchers from the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University found that extra- virgin olive oil (EVOO) was related to reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Consumption of EVOO helped to diminish genetic mutations in the brain that are markers of Alzheimer’s, including amyloid-beta plaque formations and neurofibrillary tangles within the brain.

The study said that even causing a delay in Alzheimer’s by one year can reduce diagnosed cases, so it’s important to identify new preventative measures. Domenico Praticò, the study’s lead investigator and a professor of pharmacology and microbiology at Temple, said EVOO kickstarts a cellular process where breakdown occurs and toxins and debris are flushed out.

“We found that olive oil reduces brain inflammation but most importantly activates a process known as autophagy,” Praticò said to Science Daily. “Brain cells from mice fed diets enriched with extra-virgin olive oil had higher levels of autophagy and reduced levels of amyloid plaques and phosphorylated tau.”

Phosphorylated tau has been the suggested culprit behind damaged nerve cells in the brain that lead to hallmark memory problems those with Alzheimer’s experience. The study said the amount of attention paid to olive oil and its benefits influenced its hypothesis.

“The thinking is that extra-virgin olive oil is better than fruits and vegetables alone, and as a monounsaturated vegetable fat it is healthier than saturated animal fats,” Praticò said.

The study observed two groups of mice in an established Alzheimer’s mouse model. One group was given a regular diet and the other was given an EVOO-enriched diet. While both groups seemed to be the same physically, the group given olive oil was able to perform better on memory and learning tests at nine and 12 months of age.

“One thing that stood out immediately was synaptic integrity,” Praticò said.

The mice who had the EVOO-rich diet showed a significant increase in brain immunoreactivity for synaptophysin, a major synaptic protein in the brain. The control group experienced lower autophagy activation than those that consumed EVOO as well.

“This is an exciting finding for us,” Praticò said. “Thanks to the autophagy activation, memory and synaptic integrity were preserved, and the pathological effects in animals otherwise destined to develop Alzheimer’s disease were significantly reduced. This is a very important discovery, since we suspect that a reduction in autophagy marks the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Praticò and his team hope to implement EVOO into the diets of mice 12 months old that have already developed Alzheimer’s symptoms in a later study. He said the model will determine whether a diet enriched with EVOO in the later stages of Alzheimer’s will make an impact.

“Usually when a patient sees a doctor for suspected symptoms of dementia, the disease is already present,” Praticò said. “We want to know whether olive oil added at a later time point in the diet can stop or reverse the disease.”

The authors wrote that the study documented the protective effects of EVOO for the first time to the researchers’ knowledge. They said the study could help understand EVOO’s role within the entire spectrum of Alzheimer’s disease.

“The translational value of our findings lies in the observation that EVOO supplementation can influence the entire spectrum of the [Alzheimer’s disease] phenotype,” the authors wrote. “Our studies provide mechanistic support to the positive cross-sectional and longitudinal data on this component of the Mediterranean diet, and most importantly the biological rationale to the novel hypothesis that EVOO could be considered as a viable therapeutic opportunity for preventing or halting [Alzheimer’s disease].”

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