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Potential Link Between Celiac Disease and Cognitive Decline

problems in the brain

* An immune attack on the brain that may occur in some patients with celiac disease

The cognitive decline that occurred in three of the celiac disease patients studied, according to Dr. Josephs, is relatively unique in its reversal in two of the patients and stabilization in one patient. Typically, cognitive decline continues to worsen, he says. “This is key that we may have discovered a reversible form of cognitive impairment,” he says.

William Hu, M.D., Ph.D., Mayo Clinic neurology resident and study investigator, says that the reversal or stabilization of the cognitive symptoms in some patients when they underwent gluten withdrawal also argues against chance as an explanation of the link between celiac disease and cognitive decline.

Currently, the investigators do not know which celiac disease patients are at risk for cognitive decline; this deserves future investigation, says Dr. Hu.

Dr. Murray suggests that recognizing and treating celiac disease early will likely prevent most consequences of the disease, including symptoms in the gut or the brain. For celiac disease patients who have already developed cognitive decline, closely following a gluten-free diet may result in some symptom improvement, he says. For those with cognitive decline without a confirmed diagnosis of celiac disease, he does not recommend a gluten-free diet, however.

Physicians can play an important role in keeping alert to a potential celiac disease and cognitive decline connection, says Dr. Hu.

“For patients who come in with atypical forms of dementia, we need to consider checking for celiac disease, especially if the patients have diarrhea, weight loss or a younger age of onset -- under age 70,” he says.

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