Ketones: metabolism's ugly duckling

Nutr Rev. 2003 Oct;61(10):327-41. doi: 10.1301/nr.2003.oct.327-341.


Ketones were first discovered in the urine of diabetic patients in the mid-19th century; for almost 50 years thereafter, they were thought to be abnormal and undesirable by-products of incomplete fat oxidation. In the early 20th century, however, they were recognized as normal circulating metabolites produced by liver and readily utilized by extrahepatic tissues. In the 1920s, a drastic "hyperketogenic" diet was found remarkably effective for treatment of drug-resistant epilepsy in children. In 1967, circulating ketones were discovered to replace glucose as the brain's major fuel during the marked hyperketonemia of prolonged fasting. Until then, the adult human brain was thought to be entirely dependent upon glucose. During the 1990s, diet-induced hyperketonemia was found therapeutically effective for treatment of several rare genetic disorders involving impaired neuronal utilization of glucose or its metabolic products. Finally, growing evidence suggests that mitochondrial dysfunction and reduced bioenergetic efficiency occur in brains of patients with Parkinson's disease (PD) and Alzheimer's disease (AD). Because ketones are efficiently used by mitochondria for ATP generation and may also help protect vulnerable neurons from free radical damage, hyperketogenic diets should be evaluated for ability to benefit patients with PD, AD, and certain other neurodegenerative disorders.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / metabolism
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Ketones / metabolism*
  • Parkinson Disease / metabolism
  • Starvation / metabolism


  • Dietary Carbohydrates
  • Ketones