A drink derived from coconut oil could one day be used to fight the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, according to new research from Quebec.

Memory loss may be caused by ageing brains struggling to get enough energy, which is usually delivered in the form of glucose. A new study published this month in Alzheimer’s & Dementia suggests the brains of seniors with mild memory problems can use a substance called ketones, produced in the body through a drink, as an effective alternative.

Lead author Stephen Cunnane of the University of Sherbrooke says the study shows the brain is “kind of like the hybrid car.”

“The energy problem in the brain can be corrected by supplying the ketones to replace the problem with glucose,” he said.

“It was always thought that this energy problem was a consequence of the disease because the cells are starting to die,” Cunnane added. “We showed clearly that that’s not the case, because they’re utilizing this alternative fuel. We’ve shown convincingly, as far as I’m concerned, that ketones definitely help the ageing brain work better.”

For a period of six months, 52 seniors with mild cognitive impairments were given a daily placebo or 30 grams of “medium-chain triglycerides” (MCTs) in the form of a liquid dietary supplement. MCTs enhance the body’s production of ketones.

After a trial period, participants were tested for memory, word recognition and processing speed. Results from brain scans showed that those who took the daily dose of MCTs scored better on all tests.

“Brain regions that are starving, that don’t have enough energy, are now lighting up,” Cunnane said.

With just 52 subjects, the sample size wasn’t designed to assess those issues on a scientific scale, so researchers have launched a study double the size that will specifically address the effects of ketones on brain function.

Cunnane hopes the new study will to lead to the development of a ketone-rich beverage to protect the brain. He is currently partnering with a company to make more concentrated MCT.

But taste could be an issue. Eight participants dropped out of the study because they couldn’t tolerate the drink Cunnane and his team provided.

For 83-year-old Daniel Fricker, who stayed in Cunnane’s study, the beverage wasn’t appetizing.

“If you took milk and put some chalk dust in it, that might be what it would taste like,” he said.

Taste aside, the results are encouraging for researchers because most drugs tested to boost memory function by targeting plaques in the brain have failed.

“Some of the treatments that have not worked in the past might work better if we take care of the energy problem in Alzheimer’s disease at the same time,” said Cunnane.

“Changing the level of plaque in the brain doesn’t seem to have worked but if we try to change the energy level and try to get it back to normal, we have a better chance, we believe, of slowing down the disease,” he added. “Our cognitive results so far definitely lead to that impression.”

The research is also encouraging since MCTs are easily derived from coconut oil and palm kernel oil. MCT is already available in Canada as a food product with few known side effects.

Howard Chertkow, chair in cognitive neurology at Baycrest Health Sciences and the University of Toronto, called the research “very exciting.”

“The possibility that this relatively simple approach, a drink you take several times a day, might be enough to change the disease (is) very exciting and clearly has to be pursued in the future,” he said.

It’s also exciting for Canadian researchers, who Chertkow hopes will receive more funding for their work.

“Canadian research scientists can make a serious contribution in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and we have to hope the government and the funding agencies will increasingly support this sort of research in the coming years,” he said.

Pressing questions remain about Cunnane’s research, according to Chertkow, including whether it will it work in everyone and whether its effects are only temporary.

“There are still more important steps to go, but it is a step in the right direction,” he said.