A Natural Collaboration to Fight Alzheimer's

Professor with student at computer Dr. Amal Kaddoumi looks over imaging from a microscope with graduate student Youssef Mousa in the Harrison School of Pharmacy's new Pharmacy Research Building. The image is of a brain that has been affected by amyloid-beta plaques and neuro-inflammation, both of which are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.

September 28, 2018

AUBURN, Alabama – What would you say if told a preventative measure to being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia is sitting in your kitchen pantry? According to Auburn University Harrison School of Pharmacy (HSOP) researcher Dr. Amal Kaddoumi, that could certainly be the case.

Kaddoumi is leading a multi-disciplinary team in an investigation of oleocanthal, a molecule that appears naturally in extra-virgin olive oil, as a novel preventative treatment for such diseases.

Kaddoumi, whose specialty areas include neuropharmacology and brain research, has received a R21 grant from the National Institutes of Health of more than $400,000 to study oleocanthal and the therapeutic possibilities it has related to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Additionally, she has received $150,000 as part of the Auburn Presidential Awards for Interdisciplinary Research for a pilot clinical study and is collaborating with multiple national and international groups on additional therapeutic benefits of oleocanthal that are currently ongoing to evaluate its anti-inflammatory effect in Alzheimer’s.

A molecule isolated from extra-virgin olive oil, oleocanthal is a potent antioxidant and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory natural product. Somewhat similar to ibuprofen, her studies on oleocanthal and oleocanthal-rich extra-virgin olive oil show the compound is highly effective against Alzheimer’s-related behaviors.

“We are very excited about our findings with oleocanthal, which demonstrated several positive effects against Alzheimer’s in mice that express the disease, such as enhancing the blood-brain barrier function and reducing the formation of amyloid-beta plaques and neuroinflammation, all of which are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s,” said Kaddoumi. “We are optimistic about the impact of oleocanthal on reducing the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, a stage that precedes Alzheimer’s, and on reducing the progression from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s.  As an outcome of this project, we hope the findings will support advancing the therapeutic development of oleocanthal in clinical trials.”

A truly multidisciplinary effort, Kaddoumi is leading a team with collaborators from within the Harrison School of Pharmacy and across the Auburn campus.


Professor pours olive oil
Dr. Amal Kaddoumi pours extra-virgin olive oil into a graduated cylinder in her lab at the Pharmacy Research Building. The extra-virgin olive oil contains a compound called oleocanthal that she believes can help strengthen the blood brain barrier and ward off diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Within HSOP, Dr. Miranda Reed specializes in psychology, particularly in memory loss and is able to evaluate the effect of oleocanthal on working memory, spatial memory and learning abilities, which are usually impaired in Alzheimer’s. Dr. Peter Panizzi brings experience in molecular imaging, allowing the group to assess the effect of oleocanthal on the blood-brain barrier function and Alzheimer’s disease progression using the state-of-the-art Multi-Spectral Optoacoustic Tomography (MSOT) system.

Dr. Thomas Denney, Dr. Gopikrishna Deshpande, Dr. Jennifer Robinson and Ron Beyers from the Auburn University MRI Center will assist in MRI imaging, data interpretation and assess effect on cognition and behavior. Dr. Darren Beck from the Edward Via College of Medicine will assist in biomarkers analysis while Dr. Annie Kirby will act as the nutrition expert to ensure adherence in each study group to the protocol. Dr. Nancy Merner from the Auburn College of Veterinary medicine is consulting on human study design, subjects’ recruitment and IRB protocol establishment.

“We have a multidisciplinary team with expertise in neurologic disorders, behavioral testing, molecular imaging and pre-clinical drug development for AD therapeutics,” said Kaddoumi. “Their work is essential to accomplish the project objectives.”

Alzheimer’s affects more than 30 million people globally, including more than five million people in the United States that are living with the disease. That number is expected to increase to 16 million in 2050.

With the disease affecting such a large part of the population, Kaddoumi believes it is important to identify ways people can reduce the risk of developing the disease. One area she has identified as a factor is diet with clinical studies suggesting that adherence to Mediterranean diet improves cognitive function and slows the progression of Alzheimer’s. One major component of a Mediterranean diet is extra-virgin olive oil.

“According to our findings with extra-virgin olive oil, this observed positive effect could be attributed to the oleocanthal compound, which suggests the consumption of extra-virgin olive oil could be beneficial to protect memory and learning ability,” said Kaddoumi. “As a therapeutic approach, we are working on the development of oleocanthal as a therapeutic molecule to prevent, slow, and/or hold the progression of Alzheimer’s.”

Using these therapeutics to strengthen the blood-brain barrier can be key to helping those with neurodegenerative disorders. The team hopes its work leads to clinical trials and a new therapy for treating Alzheimer’s diseases and related disorders including cerebral amyloid angiopathy, and vascular dementia.


Images of brains suffering from Alzheimer's The left and right images highlight the effect of treatment on amyloid-beta plaques (green) and neuro-inflammation (red) found in a brain with signs of Alzheimer’s. The left side is prior to treatment while the right side has been treated with oleocanthal-rich extra virgin olive oil, reducing the plaques and inflammation.

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About the Harrison School of Pharmacy

Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy is ranked among the top 20 percent of all pharmacy schools in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report. Fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE), the School offers doctoral degrees in pharmacy (Pharm.D.) and pharmaceutical sciences (Ph.D.) while also offering a master’s in pharmaceutical sciences. For more information about the School, please call 334.844.8348 or visit http://pharmacy.auburn.edu.

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Last Updated: September 28, 2018