Shaking up Alzheimer's patients
Medical experts believe that a lot of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, including memory loss, result from damage to synapses that carry vital messages between brain cells.

Now a group of researchers at St. Louis University is taking a closer look at a nutritional shake that seems to improve verbal memory in Alzheimer's patients.

The researchers are seeking people who are in early stages of the disease to participate in the 24-week study. A total of 500 volunteers will be recruited at 40 study sites nationwide.

Participants must be at least 50 years old, have mild to moderate Alzheimer's and be on a stable dose of a drug approved by the FDA to treat Alzheimer's.

A caregiver must accompany participants to six visits and be available by phone to answer questions about the patient's behavior and ability to function.

Half of the participants will be given the nutritional shake to drink with breakfast. The other half will receive a control beverage. All participants will continue taking traditional Alzheimer's medications prescribed by their doctors.

The shake tastes like vanilla and strawberries even though it's made with nutrients from fish.

"You have to be able to mask the fish taste," said Dr. John Morley,

director of the division of geriatrics. "That's the problem - no one likes to drink fish."

Morley and Theodore Malmstrom, assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry, are leading the study at ST. Louis University.

The shake was concocted by Dr. Richard Wurtman, professor of neuropharmacology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, and contains uridine, choline and omega-3 fatty acids - compounds that are found in fish, meat and breast milk.

Wurtman discovered that the combination of nutrients promotes the growth of spines on the membranes of nerve cells in animals. When those spines come into contact with other nerve cells, they form connections.

Alzheimer's disease afflicts about 4 million to 5 million Americans annually.

The current study builds on a similar one that SLU took part in two years ago. It followed 225 patients with early-stage Alzheimer's who were divided into two groups. Researchers tested them after 12 weeks by reading stories, waiting 30 minutes, then quizzing them on details.

Forty percent of those who drank the shake showed marked improvement in verbal memory, while only 24 percent of those who drank the placebo showed improvement.

"It's an exciting possibility as an adjunct to what's already available," Morley said. "It may allow patients to stay home longer and communicate with friends a little longer."

The drink has almost no side effects, because the ingredients come from all-natural sources.