The study also showed that supplementary vitamin A given to newborns could be effective in slowing the degenerative brain disease.
The findings are based on studies of genetically-engineered mice. The research was announced last week by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in western Canada.
It was conducted jointly by Dr. Weihong Song at UBC and Dr. Tingyu Li with others at the Children’s Hospital of Chongqing Medical University in southwest China.
“Our study clearly shows that marginal deficiency of vitamin A, even as early as in pregnancy, has a detrimental effect on brain development and has long-lasting effect that may facilitate Alzheimer’s disease in later life,” said Song, a professor of psychiatry at UBC and the Canada Research Chair for Alzheimer’s Disease.
Low levels of vitamin A
Song told Xinhua on Monday that his findings were the result of a five-year research project that built on previous studies that linked low levels of vitamin A with cognitive impairments.
The researchers had studied 330 elderly people in Chongqing and found that 75 percent of those with either mild or significant vitamin A deficiency had cognitive impairment, compared to 47 percent of those with normal vitamin A levels.
“Since lower vitamin A is correlated or associated with dementia and cognitive impairment in the elderly, we thought maybe we could check if vitamin A deficiency at the early stage (of life) has any effect on the later stages of Alzheimer’s development. That’s where we started,” he said.
Vitamin A deficiency is more common in developing countries
The researchers examined the effects of vitamin A deprivation in the womb and infancy on Alzheimer’s model mice.
Early developmental stages are crucial periods during which brain tissue is “programmed” for the rest of a person’s life.
Song said they found that even a mild vitamin A deficiency increased the production of amyloid beta, the protein that forms plaques that smother and kill neurons in Alzheimer’s disease.
They also found that their study mice, when deprived of vitamin A, performed worse as adults on a standard test of learning and memory.
Even when the mice deprived of vitamin A in the womb were given a normal diet as pups, they performed worse than mice who received a normal amount of the nutrient in the womb, but were deprived after birth. Song said that means the damage to the brain had already been done in the womb.