Myelin and the Aging Brain: Can Demyelination Be Reversed?
by Nils Osmar. Nov. 6, 2022. Medical Disclaimer
Nerve cells, or neurons, are the basic unit of communication in both human and animal nervous systems.
The myelin sheath is an insulating layer made up of proteins and fats which forms around neurons, including the ones in the brain and spinal cord. It’s similar in some ways to the plastic insulation which covers the wires in an electrical cord, protecting the wires from damage and insulating them from the environment.
When it’s intact, the sheath allows electrical impulses to travel rapidly and efficiently along the “wire” or axon connecting it to another neuron, maintaining the strength and integrity of the message being transmitted.
As we age, myelin degrades
The degradation of myelin, which occurs in diseases such as MS, is also one of the hallmarks of aging, associated with problems in both memory and cognition. It’s a factor that researchers have been exploring ways to reverse. According to a University of British Columbia article (Keeping Aging Brains Lighting-Fast):
Dr. Kendra Furber, an assistant professor at the UBC Northern Medical Program and the University of Northern British Columbia, is working to pinpoint the causes of brain aging and how we can prevent or reverse the damage of time.
…. “Our brains continue to myelinate until midlife and then the volume and integrity of that myelin starts to decline. This often correlates with deficits in memory and cognitive processing speed,” Dr. Furber said.
So if you feel like your reaction time is decreasing, it may be due to degradation of your myelin sheaths. See study. Choice reaction time performance correlates with diffusion anisotropy in white matter pathways supporting visuospatial attention.
The good news is, there are things we can do to slow or reverse this process.
Nutrients for remyelination
Demyelination is the degradation of the myelin sheath; remyelination is a process by which the body rebuilds it. One nutrient that can support remyelination is vitamin D. From a study called A vitamin supplement for remyelination
Low vitamin D levels have been linked to the onset of MS, and de la Fuente et al.’s findings suggest that the vitamin might also affect the disease’s progression by controlling myelin sheath regeneration, a process that declines with age. VDR agonists might therefore be able to enhance remyelination in MS patients. Indeed, the researchers found that VDR was expressed in OPCs and oligodendrocytes present in MS brain lesions.
… and B12
Another key nutrient is vitamin B12. From a study called “Vitamin B12 Enhances Nerve Repair and Improves Functional Recovery After Traumatic Brain Injury by Inhibiting ER Stress-Induced Neuron Injury””
…we evaluated the effect of vitamin B12 on remyelination after TBI. These data suggested that vitamin B12 increased the level of MBP, which plays vital roles in the myelination process and the appropriate formation of myelin thickness and compactness. Meanwhile, LFB staining showed that vitamin B12 restored myelin by reducing the vacuolar changes in the myelin sheath after TBI.
The fatty acids in fish and krill oil ω-3 PUFAs also support remyelination. From an article called “Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation improves neurologic recovery and attenuates white matter injury after experimental traumatic brain injury“:
…ω-3 PUFAs prevented the loss of myelin basic protein (MPB), preserved the integrity of the myelin sheath, and maintained the nerve fiber conductivity in the CCI model. ω-3 PUFAs also directly protected oligodendrocyte cultures from excitotoxicity and blunted the microglial activation-induced death of oligodendrocytes in microglia/oligodendrocyte cocultures.
In sum, ω-3 PUFAs elicit multifaceted protection against behavioral dysfunction, hippocampal neuronal loss, inflammation, and loss of myelination and impulse conductivity. The present report is the first demonstration that ω-3 PUFAs protect against white matter injury in vivo and in vitro. The protective impact of ω-3 PUFAs supports the clinical use of this dietary supplement as a prophylaxis against traumatic brain injury and other nervous system disorders.
Another key nutrient to be aware of is phosphatidylserine. Some studies suggest that supplementing with it may reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive dysfunction in the elderly.” Researchers have also concluded that phosphatidylserine is required for healthy nerve cell membranes and myelin in the brain. See study.
,,, and a number of other nutrients
From an SF Gate article entitled Myelin Sheath Nutrition:
Consuming B-vitamins contributes to healthy myelin. These nutrients play a role in the formation and maintenance of a functional myelin sheath, and deficiencies in these nutrients harm your myelin.
Specifically, vitamin B-12, B-5 and B-9 deficiencies lead to a breakdown of the myelin sheath, reports the Linus Pauling Institute. Consume whole grains and eggs as sources of vitamin B-5; avocados and watermelon as sources of vitamin B-9; and meats, dairy products or fortified cereals as sources of vitamin B-12.
What I’m doing
For a number of reasons, including wanting to protect and strengthen my myelin, I include foods high in omega 3 fatty acids in my diet.
I eat salmon, sardines and anchovies as sources of Omega 3 fatty acids, trying to eat them at least once a day (except when fasting). I also take both fish and krill oil as supplement. I supplement occasionally with vitamin D.
I’ve sometimes taken metformin for general anti-aging purposes. One of its side effects is depleting the body of B12. So on days when I was taking it, I would take a vitamin B12 supplement. I’m currently taking a multi-vitamin containing all of the components of the B vitamin complex.
At one point in my life, I started developing severe short term memory problems; I started supplementing with phosphatidyl serine. (The brand I like best is Jarrow.) This is anecdotal of course, but I can report that my memory problems began clearing up within a few days of adding it to my regimen. I also eat foods like North Atlantic mackerel and (low mercury) skipjack tuna which are naturally high in PS.
Not medical advice
This article is not intended as, and should not be taken as, medical advice. I’m not advising that people eat any particular diet or take any particular supplements, just reporting on what I’m doing. All supplements can have side effects; I would encourage people to research both possible benefits and side effects before starting on any supplementation regimen. See full Medical Disclaimer
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