Research on the relationship between cholesterol and the brain is heading in many interesting directions. Here’s a summary of some of the latest findings:

Unhealthy cholesterol levels

may be causing formation of amyloid plaque in the brain. Research conducted by the University of California Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center, published in December 2013 in JAMA Neurology, found that unhealthy patterns of cholesterol (i.e., high levels of LDL and low levels of HDL) could be directly causing higher levels of amyloid plaque in the brain, a known hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. More research is needed to determine exactly how cholesterol is affecting the amyloid deposits in the brain.

Raising HDL cholesterol

may lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A study published in the December 2010 issue of Archives of Neurology by investigators at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, looked at the link between HDL cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease among 1,130 elderly Manhattan residents. They discovered that having low levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” one) raised participants’ risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Previous studies into the relationship between HDL cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease had inconsistent results, with some finding an association but others finding none. The researchers believe this study may provide a more accurate account of the relationship because it followed subjects for a longer period of time, an average of four years. Though the findings need to be confirmed through further study, this research points to the possibility that increasing your HDL cholesterol level can lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Cholesterol causes cells to divide incorrectly.

Researchers at the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in a study published in the April 2013 online journal PLOS ONE, found that cholesterol, particularly in the LDL form, caused cells to divide incorrectly and distribute their already duplicated chromosomes unequally to the next generation. The result was an accumulation of defective cells with the wrong number of chromosomes. Of particular interest was the discovery of cells that carried three copies of chromosome 21, the chromosome that encodes the amyloid peptide that is the key component of amyloid plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Previous studies had shown that up to 10 percent of cells in an Alzheimer’s patient, including neurons in the brain, have three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the usual two. Other research, at Leipzig University, Germany, found that during autopsy 90 percent of the cell death in brains of Alzheimer’s patients was due to the creation and selective loss of neurons with the wrong number of chromosomes. Future research to identify the specific role cholesterol plays in this irregular cell division could lead to completely new therapies for the many human diseases that show signs of defective cell division, including Alzheimer’s disease.