Vitamin B12 carries out a number of vital functions in the body, such as making red blood cells, nerves and DNA. Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia occurs when a lack of vitamin B12 causes the body to produce abnormally large red blood cells that cannot function properly. Most people get their dose of the vitamin through B12-rich foods such as meat, eggs, poultry, dairy products, and other foods from animals. Strict vegetarians and vegans are therefore at a greater of risk running a vitamin B12 deficiency, and a recent study sheds a new light on the threats this could pose.
Using roundworms, one of Earth’s simplest animals, Rice University bioscientists have found the first direct link between a diet with too little vitamin B12 and an increased risk of infection by two potentially deadly pathogens.
Despite their simplicity, 1-millimeter-long roundworms called Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) share an important limitation with humans: They cannot make B12 and must get all they need from their diet.
In a recent study in PLOS Genetics, researchers from the lab of Rice biochemist and cancer researcher Natasha Kirienko describe how a B12-deficient diet harms C. elegans’ health at a cellular level, reducing the worms’ ability to metabolise branched-chain amino acids (BCAA).
The research showed that the reduced ability to break down BCAAs led to a toxic buildup of partially metabolised BCAA byproducts that damaged mitochondrial health.
Mitochondria are known as the powerhouses of the cell – they are organelles that act like a digestive system which takes in nutrients, breaks them down, and creates energy rich molecules for the cell.
Researchers studied the health of two populations of worms, one with a diet sufficient in B12 and another that got too little B12 from its diet.
Like the second population of worms, at least 10 percent of U.S. adults get too little B12 in their diet, a risk that increases with age.
“We used C. elegans to study the effect of diet on a host and found that one kind of food was able to dramatically increase resistance to multiple stressors – like heat and free radicals – as well as to pathogens,” said Kirienko, assistant professor of biosciences and a CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research at Rice.
The lead scientist and co-author of the study, Kirienko said the B12 finding came as a surprise to her team, which first noticed the effect in experiments designed to investigate the mechanisms of pathogenesis of Pseudomonas aeruginosa (P. aeruginosa), a potentially deadly disease in both worms and humans that infects some 51,000 U.S. hospital patients each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Her lab, like thousands of others worldwide, uses C. elegans as a model organism to study the effects of disease, drugs, toxins and other processes that affect humans and animals. In many C. elegans research labs worms are fed Escherichia coli (E. coli), a common human gut bacteria that is itself a model organism.
Lee, a Rice undergraduate student, said the study highlights the need for C. elegans labs worldwide to pay attention to the possible differential impacts of diet on experimental outcomes.
Early detection and treatment is important
According to Harvard Health, there are a number of symptoms that can indicate a vitamin B12 deficiency, these include:
- Strange sensations, numbness, or tingling in the hands, legs, or feet
- Difficulty walking (staggering, balance problems)
- A swollen, inflamed tongue
- Difficulty thinking and reasoning (cognitive difficulties), or memory loss
“While an experienced physician may notice the symptoms and be able to detect a vitamin B12 deficiency with a good interview and physical exam, a blood test is needed to confirm the condition,” explained the health site.
Due to increased risk levels, strict vegetarians or people who have had weight-loss surgery or have a condition that interferes with the absorption of food should ask their doctor for B12 check-up, advised the health body.
“Early detection and treatment is important. If left untreated, the deficiency can cause severe neurologic problems and blood diseases,” it added.
The treatment for vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia depends on what’s causing the condition, according to the NHS.
“Most people can be easily treated with injections or tablets to replace the missing vitamins,” the health site explained.
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