New research indicates that several B vitamins may be the gateway to discovering more about the brain’s power and functions as well as detecting mental health issues.


Lindsay Allen, a U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritionist, reports that low levels of the B vitamins, folate, are associated with dementia symptoms and “cognitive decline” in brain function.


Allen in conjunction with scientists from the University of California-Davis, the UCD Medical Center and the University of California-San Francisco teamed together on the long-term research project called the Sacramento Area Latino Study on Aging.


The study began in 1996 with Allen explaining in a news release that earlier research conducted before that time were inconclusive and had confusing results. The team’s ongoing work now includes about 1,800 Hispanics ages 60 to 101.


Allen notes that vitamin B-12 deficiency in particular has been very common in developing countries because the only foods you can get it from are animal sources, such as milk, eggs and meet, and many people in poor countries don’t consume them.


“But B-12 deficiency is also very common in the elderly U.S. population because they stop being able to absorb it from their diet as they grow older,” she says. “We think supplements will work in the elderly because even though they can’t absorb it naturally through food, they can through supplements.”


Mary Haan of UC San Francisco led the group as they collected blood samples from the volunteers to be analyzed.


An analysis of volunteers’ blood samples found that decreased  levels of one B vitamin, folate, are associated with symptoms of dementia and poor brain function, also called “cognitive decline,” as determined by standard tests of memory and other factors. The impairments were detectable even though less than 1 percent of the volunteers were actually deficient in folate.


Researchers also found that women with low folate levels fared worse than men. In women, low levels of folate were associated with symptoms of depression. Women in the bottom third subgroup with a folate deficiency more than doubled their risk for depression, when compared to those in the highest third.  This finding provided new evidence of an association between lower blood folate and depression. Other studies have previously determined that depression does impact brain function.


During the vitamin B-12, the SALSA team determined that a protein known as holoTC, short for holotranscobalamin, could be a doorway to a different approach for detecting cognitive decline earlier and more accurately.


The researchers have published these and other findings, beginning in 2003 and continuing through this year, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine, The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, The Journal of Nutrition, and The Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging.