The battle against brain disease

While the U.S. government-industrial-medical complex keeps coming up short, Nature offers a number of science-backed solutions

Despite the first Bush administration declaring that the 1990s was the “Decade of the Brain,” mainstream medicine is no closer to discovering how to treat—let alone eradicate—deadly brain diseases than it was 25 years ago. As a recent article in the medical journal The Lancet pointed out, compared to cancer, diabetes, and stroke, research on brain diseases is often neglected or ignored altogether.1

One reason could be that worldwide, brain diseases still account for only about 4 percent of all deaths from non-communicable diseases, and about 5 percent of all disabilities.2 But as the global population grows older, those numbers are expected to increase dramatically. In fact, some researchers believe that by 2050, one in 85 people worldwide will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.3

But Alzheimer’s isn’t the only brain disease striking fear into Americans. Other neurological diseases—like Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and multiple sclerosis—are equally terrifying. And equally devastating. Particularly because, in most cases, there are no effective mainstream treatments.

Fortunately there are some simple, natural approaches you can use to boost your brain power and combat these four fearsome neurological diseases. And they are scientifically proven to work. I’ll tell you all about them in a moment. But first, let’s take a closer look at the different types of brain diseases.

Unknown causes, devastating effects

Dementia symptoms include loss of memory, mood changes, and problems with communication and reasoning. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia.

Although mainstream medicine remains baffled about the cause of this increasingly frequent disorder, some research shows that if you’re exposed to a lot of herbicides, pesticides, aluminum, copper, lead, or zinc (in heavy metal form), you may be more likely to end up with dementia.4,5

Parkinson’s disease has multiple symptoms, including tremors, walking and balance problems, speech pathologies, and depression. Yet nearly 200 years after a British doctor first described “the shaking palsy,” the cause remains unknown.

But a growing body of molecular research suggests that cell abnormalities might be a factor. Which would help explain why several metabolic poisons may increase the risk—including pesticides and wood preservatives.6 Excessive exposure to copper, iron, lead, and manganese may also be a factor.7

Motor neuron diseases are characterized by progressive paralysis due to degeneration of neurons in the brain, brainstem, and spinal cord. The best known of these diseases is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS—also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Ironically, although the vast majority of motor neuron diseases are not genetic, most of the research over the years has been on genetic factors. There have been few studies on environmental causes. But some research shows that people who work with electricity or agricultural chemicals may be more susceptible to motor neuron diseases.8 A history of head injury, including sports injuries, may also be a culprit.9

Multiple sclerosis is a neuro-inflammatory disease that damages the protective coverings of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Like Parkinson’s, it has many symptoms, including fatigue, walking difficulties, vision problems, and cognition issues.

As with other brain diseases, MS remains a mystery to the mainstream—although there is some evidence that exposure to chemical solvents increases the risk.5

In fact, it’s very likely that a significant proportion of all brain diseases are associated with environmental and occupational toxin exposures.

But, as I mentioned above, despite a “decade of the brain,” we are still decades behind on basic studies on this topic.

Another little-known casualty of the “war on cancer”

Biologists and medical scientists have known for centuries that the brain is our most sensitive organ, taking up one-third of all the blood, oxygen, and glucose in our bodies. So you’d think that any disease affecting this vital organ would be a top research priority. But in its infinite wisdom, the U.S. government had chosen to focus (almost solely) on cancer instead in terms of statistical searches for “causes.” Why? The answer goes back many years.

Epidemiology and biostatistics are the main methods used to study the causes of diseases in human populatoins, including brain disease (epidemiology comes from the Greek “epi,” or upon, and “demos,” the people). Initially, epidemiology was a very effective tool for studying infectious diseases. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, health policymakers declared infectious diseases had been “conquered” by antibiotics and vaccines. Instead, attention—and funding—shifted to waging a “war on cancer.”

Of course, the brief armistice on infection proved to be short-lived in the West (and there never was one in the third world) when AIDS hit the scene in the 1980s, followed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But in the meantime, epidemiologists shifted from studying acute, short-term infections to chronic, long-term diseases like cancer.

This shift required quite an adjustment, but was helped along by billions of dollars in new taxpayer funding. And of course, any time money is involved, statisticians follow.

By the time I got to the National Cancer Institute in 1983, the statisticians were calling the shots—rather than physicians or biologists. That’s akin to putting accountants in charge of the troops in a real war. In fact, statisticians were in charge of two-thirds of the “war” on cancer—namely prevention and early detection.

And when it came to studying nutrition and cancer, these new careerists, calling themselves “nutritional epidemiologists,” were designing the methods for and performing the studies on nutrition and cancer. Despite the fact that they knew almost nothing about human biology, nutrition, dietary behavior, or metabolism. (No wonder we ended up with flawed government dietary guidelines and recommendations.)

But while all of this cancer research was going on, there was another area of chronic illness that was being completely ignored by epidemiologists—neurological and brain diseases.

Even as early as 1977, when I starting on my master’s degree in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania, program director Anita Bahn,Ph.D., was trying to get funding for training and research programs to study brain diseases, which were being left behind in the war-on-cancer feeding frenzy.

Sadly and ironically, Dr. Bahn died suddenly of a ruptured brain aneurysm. Instead of moving forward, the university decided to shut down her program altogether, transferring grad students to “nearby” Johns Hopkins in Baltimore or Columbia in New York. (But because I was enrolled in the M.D./Ph.D. combined degree program, I was “stuck” at Penn in Philadelphia. Fortunately, I was soon approached by Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg to enroll in his new biomedical anthropology program.)

The result of all this tunnel-vision research and funding is that the government has not kept track of brain diseases the way it has done for cancer for decades. And there have also been few long-term studies on human brain diseases.

So despite all the professed political concern in recent decades about brain health, the mainstream has little to offer when it comes to avoiding, preventing, or treating the modern epidemic of devastating brain diseases.

Fortunately, there is good evidence that some basic nutritional and mind-body approaches  can be helpful. Let’s take a look.

The science behind natural approaches for brain health

Doctors and researchers have long known that the eight different B vitamins are key for brain health. In fact, their effects on brain tissue are so well established that in Europe they’re referred to as “neuro-vitamins.”

New research shows that the B vitamins may be particularly effective against Alzheimer’s disease—reducing the shrinkage that causes Alzheimer’s by a whopping 90 percent.10

For optimum brain health, I recommend at least 50 mg per day of B1 (thiamine), 50 mg a day of B6, 400 micrograms of folate (B9), and 100 micrograms of B12.

You can get all of these amounts and more in a typical B vitamin complex supplement. But my recommendations are designed so you can take different supplement formulations that may contain some Bs as well. (Caution: Be aware of what the FDA is trying to do regarding folate—check out page X for more info).

Besides the Bs, there are a few other nutrients that are also critical for brain health.

Vitamin D. This essential vitamin is key for the brain and nervous system, and also helps combat mood disorders like depression.  The latest research confirms that low vitamin D levels are associated with a substantially increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia of all kinds.11 And there is growing research that a lack of vitamin D is a contributor to multiple sclerosis.12

I recommend 5,000 IU of vitamin D per day, which, again, leaves room to take other supplements that may also include some D.

Vitamin E. As I reported back in January in my Daily Dispatch e-letter (“Miracle vitamin outperforms drug for Alzheimer’s disease”), recent evidence suggests that high doses of vitamin E (2,000 IU per day) can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.13 This finding is so surprising and new—although very encouraging—that I would like to see more research. And the FDA still needs to sort out its own mistakenperspectives on vitamin E. For now, stay with 50–200 IU per day of E (as d-alpha tocopheryl acetate).

Lutein. I helped discover the role of the carotenoid lutein in human nutrition and metabolism back in the mid-1980s. Since then, research shows its ability to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and provide health benefits to both brain and eye tissue.

Even though you won’t find any government recommended daily allowances for lutein, I recommend taking 12 mg per day.

Berberine. This herbal powerhouse is often overlooked by the natural-know-it-alls who are still talking about tired, old gingko. But as I discussed in my report The Insider’s Answer for Dodging Dementia,* there is increasing research showing that taking 500 mg per day of berberine results in impressive brain benefits.

Nicotine. Research shows nicotine lowers the risk of Parkinson’s disease. You don’t necessarily have to smoke cigarettes to get this effect, though. Nicotine gum, patches, or electronic cigarettes are all widely available. And a recent study showed that eating peppers, which naturally contain nicotine, can reduce your changes of getting Parkinson’s by 19 percent.14

L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine (Alpha GPC). This compound occurs naturally in the brain. Alpha GPC is actually a precursor for a “memory chemical” in your brain, acetylcholine. This brain chemical is believed to be critical for memory, thinking, and learning, among many other critical nerve functions. I recommend 50 mg per day.

Healthy fats. Your brain tissue needs healthy fats and cholesterol from fish, lean meats, and/or high-quality fish oil supplements. Research shows that these fats may also help insulate nerves, lowering the risk of MS. I recommend taking at least 1 to 2 grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil.  There are many other health benefits as well.

Finally, there is a pair of lifestyle choices you can make that have demonstrable brain benefits.

Keep your weight in check. Many studies have concluded that obesity early in life is linked with dementia later in life.  However, new research from Oxford University shows that this risk decreases as we age. Interestingly, researchers found that people in their 70s who were obese had no increased risk of dementia, and by age 80, obese people were actually 22 percent less likely to develop dementia.15

This pattern is analogous to the finding I reported in the September issue of Insiders’ Cures—that people who develop high blood pressure only in old age have a lower risk of dementia.

So there’s no need to “overdo” it with an overly restrictive diet or intense workout regimen. Following a healthy, balanced diet and getting moderate amounts of exercise will help keep your weight in check—and your brain healthy—through middle age and into your “golden years.”

Meditation and yoga. Researchers at the University of Illinois recently studied 108 inactive people between the ages of 55 and 79. The study participants who did yoga three times per week for eight weeks had improved memory and mental skills.16 But the study did not find cognitive benefits for participants who only did stretching and toning exercises. So it appears that engaging the mind in a meditative practice like yoga provides more benefits than simple “mindless” exercise. For practical guidelines on how to easily fit meditation into your daily life, see my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness. (Available at

As the brain disease epidemic unfolds, hopefully there will be more research into the prevention and treatment of these devastating disorders. I will continue to follow all the new findings, and fill you in as they occur here in Insiders’ Cures as well as via my Daily Dispatch e-letter. But in the meantime, as you’ve seen here, there is still much you can do to avoid devastating brain diseases and keep your mind sharp and healthy, no matter how old you are.


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4 “Neurodegenerative diseases: an overview of environmental risk factors.” Environ Health Perspect 2005; 113: 1250–6.

5 “The role of environmental exposures in neurodegeneration and neurodegenerative diseases.” Toxicol Sci 2011; 124: 225–50.

6 “Mitochondrial dysfunction in Parkinson’s disease: molecular mechanisms and pathophysiological consequences.” EMBO J. 2012; 31(14): 3038-62.

7 “Occupational and environmental risk factors for Parkinson’s disease.” Parkinsonism Relat Disord 2002; 8: 297–309.

8 “What we truly know about occupation as a risk factor for ALS: a critical and systematic review.” Amyotroph Lateral Scler 2009; 10: 295–U70.

9 “Severely increased risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis among Italian

professional football players.” Brain 2005; 128: 472–6.

10 “Preventing Alzheimer’s disease-related gray matter atrophy by B-vitamin treatment.” PNAS 2013; 110(23): 9523–9528

11 “Vitamin D and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease.”  Neurology 2014; 83(10):920-8

12 “New Studies Focus on Vitamin D and MS.” National MS Society ( Accessed 9/16/14.

13 “Effect of Vitamin E and Memantine on Functional Decline in Alzheimer Disease – The TEAM-AD VA  Cooperative Randomized Trial,” JAMA 2014; 311(1): 33-34.

14 “Nicotine from edible Solanaceae and risk of Parkinson disease.” Annals of Neurology 2013; 74(3): 472–477.

15 “Age at obesity and association with subsequent dementia: record linkage study.” Postgrad Med J 2014; 90(1,068): 547-51

16 “The effects of an 8-week hatha yoga intervention on executive function in older adults.” J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2014; 69(9): 1109-16.