Spring hill couple inspires research into coconut oil for alzheimer’s patients gas tax in new jersey

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SPRING HILL — In those first two years, her husband used chopsticks again. He also oiled door hinges, slow danced at a party, remembered his hairdresser’s name. He rewatched When Harry Met Sally and blurted "I’ll have what she’s having!" before the woman in the diner did.

The Newports’ story, first told in the Tampa Bay Times in 2008, went global. Mary Newport heard from thousands of people. She lobbied researchers, politicians and support groups to study the effects of coconut oil on Alzheimer’s patients. She even wrote a book she says sold more than 50,000 copies.

Taking coconut oil is a scientifically untested and unproven treatment for Alzheimer’s, dismissed by much of the scientific community. But Dr. Newport’s collection of positive anecdotes about nearly 275 patients who used coconut oil intrigued researchers at the University of South Florida’s Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute.

Mary Newport, now 61, is a neonatologist who runs the newborn intensive care unit at Spring Hill Regional Hospital. More than a decade ago, Steve Newport, an accountant, began having problems. He forgot appointments, got lost driving, couldn’t finish payroll reports. He was 54 when he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.

When she wasn’t dealing with sick newborns, Dr. Newport burrowed into anything she could find on Alzheimer’s. In 2008, she read a report on a small study of a new medicinal drink. The brew’s key ingredient is a type of fat known as a medium chain triglyceride. The liver converts part of those fats into an energy source called ketones.

At that time, the medicinal drink in the study had not yet hit the market. Dr. Newport learned that nonhydrogenated coconut oil is made up mostly of medium-chain triglycerides. She bought a jar of coconut oil and started spooning it into her husband’s oatmeal.

She says she started seeing results within days. Steve improved his score on an exam used to screen for dementia. His drawings of clock faces — an important test for Alzheimer’s progression — improved. His tremors subsided. He could engage with others.

The Alzheimer’s Association, the nation’s largest advocacy group, won’t endorse the use of therapies, including coconut oil, without rigorous scientific studies. "Our people are desperate," said Chuck Albrecht, chief operating officer of the Gulf Coast chapter. "The last thing we want to do is give them false hope."

Still, some experts say the scientific rationale for coconut oil is legitimate, and worthy of investigation. Dr. Mike Mullan, chief executive officer of the Roskamp Institute, a Sarasota-based biomedical research and clinical group, said it’s clear that the brains of Alzheimer’s patients aren’t properly processing sugar. Diabetes has been cited as a high risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, he noted.

Researchers looked at the impact of a very high fat, extremely low carbohydrate diet that forces the body to use ketones for energy. They found little impact, other than that the mice on the special diet improved on endurance-related motor skills, Morgan said.

It will follow 60 people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. Half will be randomly assigned coconut oil; the other half will receive a placebo that tastes and looks like coconut oil. Researchers will evaluate symptoms after three months, then switch the groups for another three months. Counting recruitment and set-up time, Morgan estimates that results are two years away.

Mary Newport hasn’t slowed down. This year she was interviewed by a British newspaper and the Christian Broadcasting Network (its founder, televangelist Pat Robertson, is a big fan of coconut oil, she said). She has given lectures and shared research news on her blog.

For nearly two years after starting on coconut oil, Steve stabilized and improved. His health declined in 2010 when his father died. That triggered a new bout of depression. He was convinced he saw his father’s reflection in darkened windows at night.

Believing the drugs had made his symptoms worse, she took him off all medications, including the Alzheimer’s drugs, which she said she did not believe had been effective. Today, he takes only gout medication and, after last week’s seizure, an anticonvulsant.