Researchers have an abundance of theories on what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s been challenging to nail down the scientific proof. Though the central cause has been elusive, one thing that all these researchers agree on is that early in the disease process, nerve endings in the brain get destroyed. Now we have some research reported in the December 2010 Journal of Neurochemistry that has unearthed one potential agent of destruction—a group of toxic chemicals called type-2 alkenes that damage nerve endings when they accumulate in the brain. The brain itself produces some of these neurotoxicants naturally, but others come from our environment, as I will shortly explain.
A Dangerous Path
Richard M. LoPachin, PhD, a neurochemist and director of research in the department of anesthesiology at Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, New York, and a researcher in Alzheimer’s disease, told me that years ago, he did animal studies demonstrating that type 2-alkenes destroy nerve endings in the brain. Other studies have found an excess of these neurotoxicants in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The new research suggests that the damage originates when some of the brain’s mitochondria (the power-producers that exist in all cells) become dysfunctional, creating free radicals that ultimately generate the type 2-alkenes. Some people may be genetically predisposed to this type of mitochondria failure, and in these folks, the destruction is “a low-grade event that accumulates damage over many years,” Dr. LoPachin said. It seems that such damage can be sped up with exposure to type-2 alkenes that we eat or breathe.
For instance, we know that people who smoke are at higher risk for Alzheimer’s—Dr. LoPachin told me that he believes it is the type-2 alkenes in tobacco that cause this higher risk and noted that these neurotoxicants exist in other places, too, including in auto exhaust, industrial pollution and smoke from burning organic material, including fireplaces and coal stoves. As to those french fries, Dr. LoPachin explained that potatoes have a certain amino acid (asparagine) that reacts with potatoes’ natural sugar at high temperatures to produce dangerous type-2 alkenes.
No More Fries?
Does this mean that you have to forever avoid fireplaces and french fries? Well, it’s not a bad idea (especially the fries)—but fortunately research has identified natural compounds that are quite helpful in partially protecting the brain against type-2 alkenes.
In particular, Dr. LoPachin says that curcumin (found in the spice turmeric and in curries that use it)…resveratrol (in red wine and grape skins)…and phloretin (apple skins) are strong neuroprotectors, but he adds that these are only a few among thousands of other protective phytopolyphenols in various fruits and vegetables. Researchers are working to isolate some of these compounds for potential use as therapeutic agents, but Dr. LoPachin advises getting phytopolyphenols in their natural state by eating them in foods, where they are accompanied by other helpful co-factors and offer greater bioavailability.
Once again it seems that the real secret to minimizing the risk for dire health problems is quite simple—eat lots and lots of fruits and vegetables!