The biochemical reactions that cause Alzheimer’s disease could be set in motion in the womb or just after birth if the fetus or newborn does not get enough Vitamin A, according to new research from the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at the University of British Columbia.

Although it has long been known that Alzheimer’s disease unfolds in a person’s brain decades before symptoms appear, this is the first time the roots of the disease have been traced back to infancy or pre-natal development.

These new findings, based on studies of genetically-engineered mice, also demonstrate that supplements given to newborns with low levels of Vitamin A could be effective in slowing the degenerative brain disease.

Previous studies have implicated low levels of Vitamin A with Alzheimer’s disease. People with Alzheimer’s disease tend to have lower levels of that nutrient in their blood; a diet low in Vitamin A increases the risk of developing the condition; and rodents deprived of Vitamin A start to show signs of the disease.

Weihong Song, a Professor of Psychiatry, built off those previous studies by examining the effects of Vitamin A deprivation in the womb and infancy – crucial periods during which brain tissue is “programmed” for the rest of a person’s life. Dr. Song, a Canada Research Chair in Alzheimer’s Disease and the Jack Brown and Family Professor, used mice that were genetically engineered to be susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease.