Two Mediterranean Plants Might Help Fight Symptoms of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's

Prickly pear and brown seaweed improved the symptoms of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's in lab tests using brewer's yeast and fruit flies.

By Stav Dimitropoulos
Jan. 16, 2017 09:42 UTC

It is esti­mated that roughly 44 mil­lion peo­ple have Alzheimer’s world­wide. The global cost of Alzheimer’s and demen­tia amounts to $605 bil­lion, which is equiv­a­lent to one per­cent of the world’s gross domes­tic prod­uct (GDP). Just in the U.S., Alzheimer’s remains the sixth-lead­ing cause of death, with those afflicted with it pro­gres­sively los­ing their sense of self as all their basic cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties decline until they may not even be able to per­form rou­tine tasks.

On the other hand, Parkinson’s dis­ease, though not as fatal as Alzheimer’s, causes tremors, rigid­ity, bradyki­ne­sia and pos­tural insta­bil­ity to 6.3 mil­lion around the globe. People may need a wheel­chair or become bedrid­den upon the pro­gres­sion of the dis­ease.

Evolution has equipped plants with chem­i­cals to ensure their sur­vival. It there­fore makes sense that humans look at nature for inspi­ra­tion to attack dis­ease.- Ruben J. Cauchi, Researcher

Both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s dis­eases are clas­si­fied as late-onset dis­or­ders that share a com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tic: they are caused by the accu­mu­la­tion of gluey pro­tein clumps that viti­ate the ner­vous sys­tem over the course of time, strik­ing a blow to mobil­ity or mem­ory mech­a­nisms.

Cures for the two dis­eases have proved elu­sive, prompt­ing researchers to think out of the box. Now, two groups from Malta and France have found that Mediterranean flora might be an ally in the fight against neu­ro­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases.

Scientists from the University of Malta and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS/University of Bordeaux) who have long been screen­ing plants indige­nous to the Mediterranean basin in search of small mol­e­cules that inter­fere with the build-up of toxic pro­tein aggre­gates, have just dis­cov­ered that two Mediterranean plants, namely the prickly pear and brown sea­weed, can improve the symp­toms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Most neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases are char­ac­ter­ized by the accu­mu­la­tion of sticky pro­tein clumps that are toxic to the brain,” Ruben J. Cauchi, senior lec­turer at the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry at the University of Malta, and lead author of the study that was pub­lished in the January issue of the jour­nal Neuroscience Letters.

We found that both prickly pear and brown sea­weed have chem­i­cals that ren­der the pro­tein clumps less toxic, thereby ame­lio­rat­ing dis­ease symp­toms,” Cauchi told Olive Oil Times.

The research team first ran tests to deter­mine the effect of the plant extracts on brew­er’s yeast fraught with beta-amy­loid pro­tein clumps, which are typ­i­cal of Alzheimer’s dis­ease. After receiv­ing the plant chem­i­cals, the yeast’s health picked up, and the sci­en­tists thought the next log­i­cal step would be to eval­u­ate the chem­i­cals on fruit flies genet­i­cally mod­i­fied to develop Alzheimer’s symp­toms.

When fruit flies were treated only with sea­weed extract, they exceeded their median lifes­pan by two days. When prickly pear extract was given to them, their lives were extended by four days more. Taking into account that one day in the life of a fruit fly is tan­ta­mount to one year in humans, the results were sig­nif­i­cant, with even the mobil­ity of fruit flies ame­lio­rated by about 18 per­cent after treat­ment.

Apart from beta-amy­loid pro­tein clumps, the team found that prickly pear and brown sea­weed extracts inter­fered with the aggre­ga­tion of alpha-synu­clein pro­tein, a sticky pro­tein indica­tive of Parkinson’s: the plant-derived sub­stances pro­longed the lifes­pan of flies with brains laden with alpha-synu­clein by pro­duc­ing clumps less toxic to neu­rons, like what they did in the case of beta-amy­loid clumps.

Brown Seaweed

We still don’t know the exact nature of these chem­i­cals but we hope to find out soon,” said Cauchi. What we know is that the chem­i­cals we stud­ied are presently incor­po­rated in nutri­tional sup­ple­ments taken by sports­men to reduce stress as well as cos­met­ics, includ­ing anti-aging creams. Our results extend the ben­e­fi­cial prop­er­ties of chem­i­cals derived from both prickly pear and brown sea­weed.”

The next step is to see if the results are con­firmed in clin­i­cal tri­als.

Evolution has equipped plants with chem­i­cals to ensure their sur­vival. It there­fore makes sense that humans look at nature for inspi­ra­tion to attack dis­ease,” the researcher said. An inspi­ra­tion the Mediterranean can instill not only into poets and vaca­tion­ers but increas­ingly in sci­ence pio­neers as well.


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