Could the ketogenic diet be a new resource in the fight against stroke?
Researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) say they have identified a biological mechanism of the diet that reduces inflammation in the brain.
Their work could lead to new therapies to treat brain trauma, stroke, and other neurological issues.
“Nothing we’ve done can be turned around tomorrow and given to a human, but it’s proof of principle. We’ve established a mechanism by which a ketogenic diet suppresses inflammation,” Dr. Raymond Swanson, a study author who also oversees a research lab at UCSF, told Healthline.
The ketogenic diet is a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet that’s been touted for years for its beneficial health properties, including being an anti-inflammatory.
It has been demonstrated to work effectively for the treatment of epilepsy.
It has also been theorized that it could help treat other neurodegenerative disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
However, the actual biological process through which the ketogenic diet induces these anti-inflammatory effects hasn’t been clear — until now.
The UCSF study, published last month in the journal Nature Communications, has identified the mechanism involved in this complex process.
And the researchers were able to do it pharmacologically. That is, without actually having to use the ketogenic diet for their study.
“You can get the benefits of the ketogenic diet, at least this benefit, without actually having to be on a ketogenic diet,” said Swanson, who is also chief of neurology services at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
How the research was conducted
Scientists induced a state of inflammation in rat brains using the molecule lipopolysaccharide.
They then introduced another molecule called 2-deoxyglucose, which blocks glucose metabolism, a characteristic of the ketogenic diet.
The process effectively lowered levels of inflammation to nearly those of their control group of rats.
“We had really huge effects,” says Swanson. “The inflammatory response in the brain was almost completely shut down.”
“That was pretty damn convincing,” he added.
Researchers had similarly positive results with their experiment when conducted on brain cell cultures.
Inflammation is a complex process that the body relies on as part of a defense mechanism against potentially harmful agents, such as bacteria.
However, in certain cases, such as head trauma and stroke, inflammation in the brain can actually be harmful.
Reducing inflammation in these cases can “reduce tissue loss and improve functional outcomes in animal models,” the researchers wrote.
The study’s significance
The significance of the study is also broader than just this application, said Swanson.
It also spotlights other potential benefits of the ketogenic diet by identifying the mechanism of the diet’s anti-inflammation properties.
Swanson says this work puts the study of the ketogenic diet on “real, firm, scientific foot.”
“In the long run that may encourage other people to get into this field with modern scientific approaches,” he added.
Additionally, major health concerns, including diabetes and obesity, have been linked with chronic inflammation.
Tapping into the ketogenic diet’s anti-inflammatory properties could also potentially lead to treatment innovations in this area as well.
“The broadest possible application of this research would be that we might be able to negate pro-inflammatory effects of a high-carb diet and people who are diabetic by interfering in the same mechanism,” said Swanson.
The study also successfully demonstrated a way to achieve the benefits of the ketogenic diet without actually having to abide by it.
The ketogenic diet is notoriously difficult to maintain, which is why researchers have been searching for pharmacological ways to mimic its effects rather than putting patients through its strict dietary demands.
Healthline reported last month on scientists attempting to turn BHB, a ketone produced by the diet linked to increased lifespan in animal models, into a pill or supplement that could then be sold to consumers.
The search for a magic pill, particularly one that might make the ketogenic diet unnecessary, remains tantalizing but still elusive.
Nonetheless, this study represents a potentially large step in that direction — one with health implications for a broad spectrum of diseases, including stroke and diabetes.
“We showed how the ketogenic diet is suppressing inflammation,” said Swanson, “and we designed a drug that would accomplish the same thing.”