Study from UW–Madison’s Padilla shows ketogenic diet could combat age-related neuromuscular dysfunction

By Laurel White

A ketogenic diet could help combat age-related motor dysfunction, according to a new study by a UW–Madison researcher. 

The study, which was published in the June issue of the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, examined the effect of a ketogenic diet on aged mice. It found that advanced-age mice who ate a ketogenic diet, which is high in fat and low in carbohydrates, showed enhanced neuromuscular and motor function and fewer lost motor unit numbers compared to peers who ate a diet of typical mouse chow. Motor units are made up of a single motor neuron and all the muscle cells it controls.


Carlos Padilla, a research associate in the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, was the lead author of the study. He says the findings help advance scientific understanding of the ketogenic diet on neuromuscular health changes that affect millions of people. 

“Pathological, age-related loss of muscle function, which is commonly referred to as sarcopenia, contributes to loss of mobility, impaired independence, as well as increased risk of adverse health events,” Padilla says. “Current treatment options for sarcopenia are primarily limited to exercise and protein supplements, but the therapeutic impact of these approaches are often not enough.” 

Previous research has shown that these age-related declines in physical function can begin when individuals are roughly 30 years old, accelerating at the age of 60 and beyond. 

Thirty-six mice were used in the study and fed either a ketogenic diet or regular diet. Mice underwent tests of motor function, which included hindlimb and all limb grip strength and motor coordination. Electrophysiological techniques were also used to key in on the connection between muscles and the nervous system, including motor unit number estimation, a technique that quantifies how many motor neurons in the spinal cord are functionally connected to a particular muscle.

Padilla co-authored the article with W. David Arnold, professor at the University of Missouri, Brian Clark, professor at Ohio University, Hallie Harris, lab manager at The Ohio State University, and Jeff Volek, professor at The Ohio State University.

Padilla says the findings call for additional research on the potential benefits of a ketogenic diet for aging adults, and to understand the mechanisms of these effects. 

“This preclinical work suggests that further research is needed to assess the efficacy and physiological effects of a ketogenic diet on things like motor unit connectivity and motor function,” he says. “Muscle function in older adults is critical for maintaining independence in daily life, and any insights we can glean into enabling better functioning for aging adults are incredibly valuable.”

Read the full study, “Effects of a ketogenic diet on motor function and motor unit number estimation in aged C57BL/6 mice,” here

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