11/21/2016 02:52 EST | Updated 11/21/2016 02:53 EST

Probiotics May Help Alzheimer's Patients

Iain Bagwell via Getty Images
Water Kefir. Healthy. Kefir grains. Fresh fruit drink. Probiotics.

There is little doubt dementia is a serious concern in Canada. The loss of memory as well as changes in behaviour, judgement, and normal daily function is like living in a mental prison from which there is no escape. Today, at least half a million people suffer from this debilitating condition and the numbers are expected to grow significantly over the coming years. This startling reality means the illness is a priority for public health officials.

One of the major causes of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, continues to be studied by researchers around the world in the hopes of finding useful ways to prevent, manage, and ultimately cure the illness. Because there is no one single cause, the path towards discovery is difficult and involves understanding a variety of different functions, from the brain itself to the immune system and even metabolism.

Over the last few years, several other potential contributors to the onset of Alzheimer's have been given some focus: microbes. For the most part, research has examined the effect of brain-related pathogens, such as herpes simplex virus, and HIV. But a smaller group of scientists have focused on another set of microbes found not in the brain, but in the gastrointestinal tract.

For years, the influence of the microbial population in the gut on overall health has been gaining increasing amounts of attention. An imbalance in the diversity of the various species, usually called dysbiosis, can have unwanted effects on our health. Some research has revealed certain changes in our microbial makeup may end up affecting our brain function.

The premise of a microbial-brain link suggests restoring gut microbial balance might be able to improve a healthy brain. Yet, figuring out the best method to accomplish this goal has been a challenge. One of the more promising routes involves fecal transplantation. Yet this method has yet to gain significant approval and has not been tested in regards to Alzheimer's disease.

Another option comes in the supplementation of already known beneficial bacterial species, better known as probiotics. This collection of species with names such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, have proven time and again in human clinical trials to benefit many of our internal systems. But whether these friendly bacteria can help combat Alzheimer's has not been given much attention.

That recently changed thanks to a recent study from a group of Iranian researchers. They attempted to determine the effects of probiotic supplementation on the devastating impacts of Alzheimer's disease. Their results suggest this route may one day be useful in managing - but not curing - the illness.

The team sought out sixty patients between the age of 65 and 90 years of age. Half were given milk while the other half were given a mixture of four known probiotic species. For 12 weeks, 400 billion bacteria were given to the participants - that's well over 1000 times what one might find in yogurt - and then assessed for mental capacity using a test known as the Mini-Mental State Examination. The exam evaluates several different abilities we all take for granted such as self-orientation, memory recall, and attention to details. In addition to the mental test, blood tests were also conducted to see if there were any changes at the microscopic level.

When the results came back, the team saw an improvement in the scores from the individuals in the mental test. The rise was relatively small, from 29% to 35% but still significant. In the controls, scores worsened over the same 12 week period. The data suggested a change in the gut microbial population may be worth exploring as a possible means to slow down the progression.

As to what may have contributed to this benefit, the blood tests revealed a possible answer. Those who took probiotics ended up with lower cores of inflammatory proteins as well as very low density lipoprotein, which more commonly is called bad cholesterol. The probiotic species seemed to improve the balance of both metabolism and immunity.

For the authors, the results suggested probiotic supplementation may be worthwhile in helping Alzheimer's patients. However, they also noted this was a preliminary trial with only a limited number of people. Much larger clinical trials would be needed to ensure what they observed would be seen in the general population.

Even with this limitation, the study may offer hope for those who will suffer in the future. As more tests are performed, the true benefit of these bacteria may come to light and gain widespread approval. Should this happen, probiotics may offer a simple and straightforward way to help manage the mental decline and at least slow the progression of this tragic disease.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook