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The Ketogenic Diet Improves Cognitive Function

AAIC breaking news

Breaking NEWS!

The Ketogenic Diet Improves Cognitive Function

The first trial using the ketogenic diet (KD) in patients with Alzheimer’s disease was presented at the 2017 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. It was presented in session of the Conference that was dedicated to the potential benefits of ketones called: Brain Ketone Metabolism, Ketogenic Interventions and Alzheimer’s disease.

As discussed in another blog post, it is know that in Alzheimer’s disease, the brain loses its ability to uptake and use glucose. This decreased glucose utilization results in decrease energy (ATP) production, causing an energy deficit in the brain. It is believed that this energy deficit then increases the risk of neuronal dysfunction and cognitive decline. Specifically, it has been shown that patients with early Alzheimer’s disease have 20-30% less glucose uptake and utilization in certain areas of the brains compared to cognitively normal older adults. Research by Dr. Cunnane, has shown that the uptake and utilization of ketones is the same in brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease compared to the brains of cognitively normal older adults. (Cunnane, 2016)

This research by Dr Cunnane shows that the even the areas of the Alzheimer’s brains that had decreased uptake of glucose had normal uptake of ketones. The implication of this is that the neurons themselves are not dead just not able to use glucose. The hope is that ketones can help improve cognition by improving this brain energy deficit. This was the basis of the KU Alzheimer’s Disease Ketogenic Diet study. The objection of the study was to see if by changing the fuel source from glucose to ketones thru the KD, would result in improvement of cognitive symptoms in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

The KU Alzheimer’s Disease Ketogenic Diet Feasibility and Retention Trial

The KU Alzheimer’s Disease Ketogenic Diet Feasibility and Retention Trial, involved 15 patients with a diagnosis of mild Alzheimer’s disease. The 15 patients were placed on the KD and an additional triglyceride supplement for 3 months. The degree of ketosis was measured thru urine and plasma ketone levels. Cognitive function tests were assessed at baseline, at the end of the 3 months, and then a month later after back on a regular diet.

Out of the 15 patients, 5 were able to unable to achieve ketosis and dropped out of the study. The 10 that were able to get into ketosis and remain on the diet for 3 months, showed an improvement in cognitive function of 4.1 points on the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale-Cog (ADAS Cog) score. After returning back to a standard diet, the scores then dropped back down to their baselines values.

The author of the study, Dr. Swerdlow, was noted to say: “As far as Alzheimer’s studies go, a 4 point improvement in the ADAS Cog score is fairly robust.” “It suggests a meaningful improvement in cognition.” “It is greater than that seen in the cholinesterase inhibitors studies.” (Hughes, 2017)

Data from this study supports the need for further studies of KD in Alzheimer’s disease. The intervention was well tolerated without serious adverse event. The main limitation of the study was adhering to the KD. (Swerdlow, 2017)   Dr. Swerdlow noted that the KD is not an easy diet to be on, and potentially an easier way to get ketones to the brain may be with supplements, which does not require such a strict low carbohydrate diet.



Cunnane, S. C. (2016). Can Ketones Help Rescue Brain Fuel Supply in Later Life? Implications for Cognitive Health During Aging and the Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, 9, 1-21.

Hughes, S. (2017, August 03). Boosting Brain Ketones Metabolism: A New Approach to Alzheimer’s. Medscape Medical News.

Swerdlow, R. (2017). The KU Alzheimer’s Disease Ketogenic Diet Feasiblity and Retention Trial: Results from a Pilot Study. Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.


The medical information on this site is provided as an information resource only. This information does not create any patient-physician relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.


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Can ketones be used as an alternative fuel source in the Alzheimer’s brain?

Can ketones be used as an alternative fuel source in the Alzheimer’s brain?

Dementia is a progressive neurological disorder resulting in a decline in cognitive function that interferes with daily activities. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s Dementia (AD). There is currently no treatment for AD and the cause of AD is still unknown. One thing that is well established, is that there is deteriorating brain glucose utilization, both uptake and metabolism, in the Alzheimer’s brain. This is based on decades of research looking at glucose uptake in brains using PET scans. These studies have shown a 20-25% global decreased brain glucose utilization compared to normal age related controls. (See picture below) This decreased glucose utilization is localized regionally in the parietal, posterior cingulate and temporal cortex of the brain. This pattern of decreased utilization is relatively specific to AD compared to other forms of dementia and normal aging itself and is used to help diagnose people who have AD. In the past this pattern of decreased glucose utilization seen in patients with AD, generally, was believed to be a consequence of neuronal cell death.

alzheimers-PET ok

Recent evidence now reveals that this brain energy deficit is present long before the clinical diagnosis or even before the symptoms of AD start. Specifically, glucose utilization has been shown to be 9% lower in cognitively normal individuals older than 65 years of age compared to younger cognitively normal individuals. The glucose deficit is also present in adults who are less than 40 years of age who have genetic or lifestyle risk factors for AD, even before having cognitive symptoms. For example young women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) have been shown to have decreased brain glucose utilization deficit similar to what would be seen in people in their 70s and 80s. PCOS patients have mild insulin resistance, which is associated with an increased risk of AD. Is it plausible then that this deficit of brain glucose utilization may exacerbate or may even be the cause of, instead of the consequence of neuronal loss in AD. One theory proposed is that it is a vicious cycle in decreased glucose utilization that then causes deteriorating neuronal function, which then results in a higher demand for glucose, with the eventual emergence of cognitive decline.

So what if there is another fuel that the brain can use other than glucose?

Dr. Cahill showed in the 1960s that ketones are the main alternative fuel source/energy supply for the brain as a way to protect the brain in times of starvation. It is also known that  infant rely on ketones as the main fuel source due to the metabolic stresses that occur with the rapidly growing infant brain. (see prior blog post) So if the human species relies on ketones to confront these energy challenges why couldn’t it work for the aging or Alzheimer’s brain?

It is has been shown that the brain uptake of ketones is proportional to the plasma ketone levels, but does this change in the aging brain or AD brain? Dr Cunnane looked at just this question. He used PET studies to show that the brain uptake of ketones is the same in patients with AD as compared to age matched cognitively healthy controls. The brain ketone utilization in AD was proportional to the plasma concentration and was the same as age matched controls. I repeat, the areas of the brain that showed decreased glucose utilization in the Alzheimer’s brain had normal uptake and utilization of ketones. This, to me is very exciting! As a neurologist I have always believed that decreased glucose utilizations in patients with AD, was a sign that those brain cells were dead. This data by Dr. Cunnane, however, shows that those cells are just not able to use glucose but can use ketones, thus are NOT dead.

So then would fueling the body with ketones be a potential treatment option of AD?

Babies are born into ketosis and stay in ketosis because the breast milk contains medium chain fatty acids which are rapidly absorbed and transformed quickly into ketones.  Coconut oil is another medium chain fatty acids. When medium chain fatty acids such as coconut oil are added to the diet in patients with AD, cognitive benefits have been shown. Clinical trials using ketogenic interventions in AD have also shown improvement with cognitive function. (see prior blog post) This suggests that interventions that increase ketone levels may have beneficial therapeutics in patients with AD and deserve further study.

The take home message, to me is: there is an impairment of glucose uptake and metabolism in the brain in patients with Alzheimer disease (AD). However, the brain uptake of ketones remains the same in AD as compared to healthy controls. There for interventions that increase ketones availability, either with a ketogenic diet or ketone supplements may help improve the energy deficits seen in the AD and aging brain. Though we do not know if there will be clinical benefits without further study.  Isn’t worth a try?



Cunnane, S. (2011). Brain fuel metabolism, aging, and Alzheimer’s disease. Nutrition, 27, 3-20.
Cunnane, S. C. (2016). Can Ketones compensate for deteriorating brain glucose uptake during aging? Implications for the risk and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Annuals of the New York Academy of Science, 1367, 12-20.
Cunnane, S. C. (2016). Can Ketones Help Rescue Brain Fuel Supply in Later life? Implications for Cognitive Health during Aging and the Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, 9, 1-21.
The medical information on this site is provided as an information resource only. This information does not create any patient-physician relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.