A ceramide is a type of lipid (fat) cell and even if you don’t know the name, you have likely encountered them before since ceramide is a common ingredient in various skin creams and shampoos. The lipid is also used by the body for various functions, including in the brain. This is why Alzheimer’s researchers at the Medical College of Georgia, with the aid of $4 million in grants, are now exploring possible uses of ceramide in treating the degenerative condition.
The way that this best-selling lipid is thought to be able to benefit Alzheimer’s treatment has to do with the way it can interact with brain cells known as cilia and astrocytes.
To (heavily) simplify matters, ceramide is used to support a cilia which is a sort of “antenna” that sticks out of a brain cell and helps guide astrocytes. When a cilia is up, astrocytes are directed about to various neurons and helps fuel them. When a cilia is down, astrocytes instead begin dividing and focusing on personal maintenance since it can’t fuel both its own division and tend to a neuron at the same time. If a cell lacks cilia, it also starts shedding cytokines, a type of immune cell that promotes inflammation.
All of this connects back to Alzheimer’s because, when functioning properly, astrocytes can help in the disposal of amyloid proteins and in theory prevent plaques from forming. Without cilia, astrocytes become inactive more easily and amyloid can build up; and without ceramide you can’t support cilia. Although there are other circumstances, such as chronic inflammation, that can contribute to the inactivity of astrocytes or cause amyloid to build up faster than it can be removed, the idea of using ceramide is a novel approach that has been deemed worth looking into.
For the record, the potential value of ceramide doesn’t mean your skin creams or shampoos could help prevent Alzheimer’s. The ingredient may be the same, but how it is processed and handled by the body is dramatically different. There is also the matter of any potential effects likely requiring more ceramide than exists in cosmetic products, let alone the fraction that would go where you want it to.
And if you think the solution is injecting shampoo into your brain… good luck with that.
Baker, T., “Best-selling lipid for skin and hair also holds promise for Alzheimer’s,” Jagwire web site, July 25, 2016; http://jagwire.augusta.edu/archives/35040, last accessed July 26, 2016.