Could sugary diets fuel Alzheimer’s disease?

A build-up of too much sugar in parts of the brain has been linked to Alzheimer’s.

For the first time, scientists have found a link between high levels of glucose in the brain and the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Our brains break down glucose – sugar in its most basic form – to provide energy to make our brains work.

People whose brains were worse at breaking down glucose suffered fewer brain plaques and tangles, the hallmark of the disease.

For the first time, scientists have found a link between high levels of glucose in the brain and the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

In addition, people whose brains were less efficient at breaking down glucose suffered worse outward dementia symptoms – such as memory loss – associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

While the research is only at an early stage, and it is not clear why being bad at breaking down glucose causes plaques and tangles, the research raises the intriguing possibility a diet lower in sugar might reduce their risks of Alzheimer’s.

Dr Madhav Thambisetty, at the National Institute of Aging in the US looked at brain tissue samples from autopsies collected by the Baltimore Longitudinal study on Aging, part of a research project which tracks the health conditions of people over several decades.

Dr Thambisetty and colleagues focused on brain areas that are vulnerable to plaques and tangles – the frontal and temporal cortex – highly involved in memory and language .


A diet high in sugar could lead to Alzheimer’s, a British study warned in February.

Unprecedented research revealed the ‘tipping point’ at which blood sugar levels become so dangerous they allow the neurological disease to take hold.

Once levels pass the threshold, they restrict the performance of a vital protein, which normally fights the brain inflammation associated with dementia.

The University of Bath and King’s College London study builds on previous research showing diabetes appears to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

But this was the first concrete evidence to explain why abnormally high blood sugar levels, or hyperglycaemia, have an impact on cognitive function. 

They also looked at areas which resist these features, such as the cerebellum which deals with movement, muscles and muscular activity.

They found that the people with more severe Alzheimer’s had problems breaking down the glucose to produce energy – a process known as glycolysis.

A slower rate of glycolysis and higher brain glucose levels was associated with more severe plaques and tangles in the brains of people with the disease.

Worse brain glycolysis was also related to Alzheimer’s symptoms such as memory problems..

Richard J Hodes of the NIA said: ‘For some time, researchers have thought about the possible links between how the brain processes glucose and Alzheimer’s.

‘Research such as this involves new thinking about how to investigate these connections in the intensifying search for better and more effective ways to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease.’

The researchers also found that people with Alzheimer’s had lower levels of enzymes used to break down glucose, and lower levels of a protein called GLUT-3 that transports glucose in brain cells – and the lower the levels of GLUT-3 the worse the plaques and tangles were.

In addition, they found that people with higher blood sugar levels in the years before they died were linked to greater levels of glucose in the brain when they died.

Dr Thambisetty said: ‘These findings point to a novel mechanism that could be targeted in the development of new treatments to help the brain overcome glycolysis defects in Alzheimer’s disease.’