Supplements derived from apple skins, red wine and turmeric might someday help slow the onset and progression of Alzheimer's and related diseases, says a new study.
In scientists' view, a group of chemicals called type-2 alkenes, which are widespread in both the environment and the brains of Alzheimer's patients, act as major drivers of the disease.
In turn, said chemical neurotoxicologist Richard LoPachin, neutraceuticals of the future could stop these brain-damaging chemicals in their tracks.
Already, LoPachin's group has developed just such a compound that, in Petri dishes at least, sops up type-2 alkenes and protects nerves from harm.
"If you talk to someone else, they may tell you I'm nuts. We know that humans are pervasively exposed to type-2 alkenes, but nobody has ever considered the possibility that type-2 alkenes in the environment might be involved in Alzheimer's. It's a new theory of Alzheimer's," Discovery News quoted LoPachin, of the Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York, as saying.
Alzheimer's is a multi-faceted disease and efforts to understand it have followed a variety of paths. One line of research focuses on the endings of nerve cells in the brain, which degenerate as the disease progresses.
When that happens, communication among nuerons breaks down, leading to confusion, forgetfulness and other hallmark symptoms of Alzheimer's.
While scientists disagree about what causes nerve-ending degeneration, studies have clearly shown that the progression of the disease itself produces type-2 alkenes in the brain.
Chemicals in this group, such as acrylamide and methylvinyl ketone, also show up in car exhaust, cigarette smoke, industrial settings, even French fries.
Exposure to type-2 alkenes in the environment has already been linked with cancer, heart disease, and other problems. For Alzheimer's patients, LoPachin argues, the double whammy of exposure from both within the brain and from out in the environment could accelerate the onset and progression of the disease.
As evidence, he points to studies showing that Alzheimer's patients have large amounts of type-2 alkenes in their brains. The chemicals appear to selectively target the ends of nerve cells, which are highly vulnerable to damage. And cigarette smoking increases the risk of Alzheimer's by more than 150 percent, possibly because of the type-2 alkenes in tobacco smoke.
If LoPachin is right, then mopping up type-2 alkenes in the brain should help fight Alzheimer's as well as other problems, such as Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries, and strokes.
In a new paper, LoPachin and colleagues report the development of just such an antidote.
The researchers drew inspiration from a group of well-studied chemicals made by some plants, including resveratrol in grapes, curcumin in tumeric, and phloretin in apple skins.
These compounds, which are all similar in chemical structure, have promising characteristics, but the human body does not easily absorb them, and they can be toxic at very high doses.
Instead, the researchers used the structure of these natural plant compounds to develop a new chemical, called 2-ACP.
In the lab studies, 2-ACP latched onto a type-2 alkene called acrolein and prevented the toxin from damaging nerve cells.
Years of testing -- first in animals, then people -- await the new molecule, LoPachin said. But he thinks the research is an important step in the battle against Alzheimer's.
The study appears in the Journal of Neurochemistry.