A Major Cause of Dementia Has Been Discovered

An example of international teamwork, researchers confirmed a key discovery this week.

Uncovering a potential major cause of dementia, this latest discovery could improve the diagnostic and treatment process. What they found, was that elevated levels of urea in the brain resulted in toxic levels that can eventually lead to brain damage and ultimately, dementia.

The team consisted of scientists from the University of Auckland, the South Australian Research and Development Institute, the University of Manchester, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University. This discovery followed earlier research on metabolic linkages between neurodegenerative conditions and type-2 diabetes.

Study Finds Possible Cause of Dementia

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this study confirmed that Huntington’s Disease is directly linked to both metabolic factors and high levels of brain urea. Being one of the major types of age-related dementia, Huntington’s Disease affects 3 to 7 per 100,000 of European ancestry.

Within their 2016 study, the researchers found that urea is linked to Alzheimer’s as well. Based on this connection, urea levels in the brain may be connected to all age-related dementias. As stated by the researchers, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s are on opposite ends of the dementia spectrum — so if this finding is true for both of these types, high urea levels likely play a role in all types.

Since elevated urea levels were observed before symptoms of dementia became apparent, this could benefit the diagnostic process. Specialists could potentially intervene before symptoms worsened. This discovery was made using donated human brains, as well as the brains of transgenic sheep in Australia.

Huntington’s is caused by a faulty gene, which researchers have understood for quite some time. Until now, however, it was not understood how this led to brain damage. This is an exciting milestone and could lead to significant process.

How Does Urea and Ammonia Develop in the Brain?

Urea is a compound excreted from the body in urine. If one’s kidneys are unable to eliminate urea and ammonia from the body, this can result in health complications. When found in the brain, urea results from the breakdown of protein. More research needs to be conducted in order to find the exact source of elevated urea among patients with these neurological conditions.

Using chromatography spectrometry, the researchers were able to measure levels of brain urea. In order for levels to be considered toxic, they must be 4-fold or higher in comparison to the normal brain. Also linked to ammonia levels in the brain, this is typically an issue for people living with impaired liver function.

In healthy individuals, the liver typically converts ammonia into urea. The body then expels it. When liver function is reduced, ammonia builds up in the blood and can lead to toxicity in the brain. When exposed to higher levels of ammonia, a chain reaction is triggered.

As potassium begins to accumulate around nerve cells, these cells begin to absorb higher levels of chloride and potassium. Based on the research, the diuretic medicine, Bumetanide, is believed to reduce ammonia damage. This drug is also currently being used to treat kidney failure, high blood pressure, and heart failure.

The Effect of Kidney Failure on the Brain

For those who currently live with kidney disease, it is important to understand how this condition affects the rest of your body — including your nervous system. Since your kidneys normally remove excess wastes and water from the blood, when they fail, levels of urea increase.

Since this compound is toxic, it can begin to affect major organs, including the brain. In most cases, symptoms do not develop until kidney function is less than 10 percent in comparison to healthy kidneys. At this point, individuals can experience issues with their memory, emotion regulation, speech, thinking and overall perception.

Within one study, researchers found that decreased kidney function is linked to reduced cognitive functioning. Both your brain and kidneys are directly affected by your cardiovascular system, so this is a perfect example of how everything is interconnected in the body.

Both affected by factors such as hypertension, it’s no surprise that changes in one organ will influence changes in another. What the researchers found, was that as renal functioning decreased, so did overall cognition. This connection continues to be explored.

Target Urea Levels Naturally

Whether you suffer from a kidney or liver condition, you can begin to target urea levels in the blood naturally. Human blood is very complex and diverse, containing a wide range of biochemicals. In order to reduce urea blood levels, please:

  • Limit protein from sources such as animal fats, cottage cheese, and chickpeas.
  • Reduce intake of alcohol.
  • Watch salt levels, especially if you suffer from kidney disease.
  • Manage potassium levels, as this mineral helps regulate salt levels in the body.
  • Increase intake of vitamin C, reducing free radical damage.

For more information on kidney disease, resources are offered by The National Kidney Foundation.




Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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