COLLEGE OF MEDICINE AND HEALTH
Medicine, Nursing and Allied Health Professions

Exeter has received a funding boost to investigate whether vitamin D promotes brain health

£250,000 funding boost to investigate whether vitamin D promotes brain health

A robust clinical trial to investigate whether taking vitamin D can help keep our brains sharp in older age has been supported by a donation of nearly £250,000 from the J P Moulton Charitable Foundation. 

The University of Exeter Medical School will conduct a three-year study on whether Vitamin D can improve brain health in people at risk of dementia. Using the PROTECT online study of people aged 50 and over, the trial will assess whether supplements could help to prevent decline in memory and other cognitive functions. 

It follows a large-scale study led by Exeter which found that people who are severely deficient in vitamin D are more than twice as likely to develop dementia. 

Dr David Llewellyn, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “This exciting new trial will help us establish whether taking vitamin D can slow down cognitive decline that in turn increases the risk of dementia. More than a billion people worldwide are estimated to have low vitamin D levels, and our previous research found a stark link between severe vitamin D deficiency and dementia. With our ageing population, we need to know whether giving inexpensive and readily available supplements could help to prevent dementia.” 

This new study will use the innovative online PROTECT platform, which has more than 25,000 people aged 50 or over signed up. It aims to find out more about how our brains age and the most effective ways to prevent dementia. It will enable a large trial of almost 600 people to be completed at a fraction of the cost of traditional clinical trials.

Vitamin D comes from sunlight and diet – but getting enough is not easy in countries like the UK, and it is estimated that a billion people worldwide are deficient. People would need to eat oily fish every day to get enough vitamin D, and sunlight exposure is too weak in winter to create enough exposure. This causes a vitamin D drought. In summer, over-exposure is linked to skin cancer. To confound the problem, we become less efficient at producing vitamin D the older we get. The trial will help scientists understand more about the value of taking cheaply available supplements.

Dr Anne Corbett, Senior Lecturer in Dementia Research at the University of Exeter Medical School will be leading the research. She said: “This trial could have a really exciting impact worldwide. If we find that taking vitamin D supplements benefits people, it would be quick and affordable to roll-out. This could have an enormous impact on the cognitive health of older adults across the UK and worldwide. This study shows the value of our large-scale PROTECT online platform, a tremendous vehicle to conduct these studies quickly, effectively and at a fraction of the cost of traditional clinical trials.”

The study follows research involving Exeter experts earlier this year, which found that a third of dementia cases could be prevented or delayed by taking action on lifestyle and medical factors from mid-life onwards. Diet is one of the key risk factors where people can take action. The new study will be the most robust to date to investigate whether vitamin D can effectively help people maintain a sharper brain in later life. 

The J P Moulton Charitable Foundation supports innovative and transformative medical research through grants and donations. Its founder, Jon Moulton, said: “This trial could be potentially life-changing for many older people across the world and we are delighted to get involved and support it. I hope that it will lead to a new breakthrough in the treatment of dementia.”

To find out more about Exeter's dementia research, visit: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/dementia.

Date: 29 April 2018

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