Ketogenic diet likely to reduce brain damage after traumatic injury

Diet improves spatial and visual memory and more, say TAU researchers

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A new international study led by Tel Aviv University (TAU) has determined that a ketogenic diet may reduce the effects of brain damage after traumatic injury. The study indicates that the diet improves spatial memory and visual memory, lowers brain inflammation indices, causes less neuronal death, and slows down the rate of cellular aging.

The study was led by Professor Chaim (Chagi) Pick, Director of TAU’s Sylvan Adams Sports Institute and a member of TAU’s Sagol School of Neuroscience, and Ph.D. student Meirav Har-Even Kerzhner, a registered dietitian and brain researcher, both of TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. The findings were published in Scientific Reports.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is a leading cause of death and long-term disability in the developed world. It is estimated that every year over 10 million people worldwide suffer from traumatic brain injury as a result of head injuries caused by a hard object, a blow, an explosion, road accidents, and sports injuries. Such traumas can lead to physical, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional damage and is also a risk factor for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. At this point, despite the high frequency of brain injuries, there is no proven effective treatment that can help those suffering from this injury.

Har-Even Kerzhner explains that a ketogenic diet involves changes in the consumption of common foods and is based on high-fat percentages, aiming to mimic a state of fasting. As part of the diet, the intake of foods that contain carbohydrates (e.g., bread, sugar, grains, legumes, snacks, pastries, and even fruits) is significantly restricted, while high-fat products such as meat, fish, eggs, avocado, and butter are consumed instead. The diet causes an increased production of ketone bodies in the liver that are used to generate energy. These ketone bodies are transferred via the bloodstream to the brain, providing optimal nourishment.

The diet has been used as a treatment in Israel and around the world for almost 100 years and recently has become popular among those who want to lose weight.

In a study conducted on model animals, the researchers determined that the ketogenic diet greatly improves the patient’s brain function. For this purpose, the researchers used advanced methods that included behavioral-cognitive tests, biochemical tests, and immunohistochemical cell staining (a technique in biology for the detection and placement of proteins in a cross section of tissue). The mechanism by which a ketogenic diet succeeds in benefiting the results of brain damage has not yet been fully revealed, but studies show that it has an antioxidant and metabolic effect on mitochondria, lowers free radical production, and raises ATP (a major molecule in cellular biochemical channels). 

 “The findings were unequivocal and showed that the ketogenic diet improves spatial memory and visual memory, lowers indices of inflammation in the brain, and slows the rate of cellular aging,” Professor Pick says. “These results may open the door to further research that will inspire hope for those suffering from traumatic brain injuries and their families.”

"Our results may open the door to further research that will inspire hope for those suffering from traumatic brain injuries."