Parkinson Disease

Blueberries Fight Parkinson's Disease

While past studies have suggested that blueberries help reduce the risk of diabetes and heart attacks, researchers from the Memorial University of Newfoundland say in a new paper that the fruit could help treat Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

A team led by Brian Staveley, PhD, a professor of biology at the University of Newfoundland, studied alpha-synuclein—a protein in the brain that is mostly found at the end of nerve cells residing in nervous system structures—by putting the gene in fruit flies. The investigators note that past studies have suggested the protein plays a pivotal role in regulating the release of dopamine, a gene proven to be the cause of inherited Parkinson’s disease in human families that possess more of the gene, or an unusual form of it, says Staveley.

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Staveley and colleagues also point out that past research has demonstrated that individuals with an accumulation of alpha-synuclein are more prone to experiencing oxidative stress, an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s ability to protect from cell damage with antioxidants.

In an effort to further understand alpha-synuclein, the researchers found that it caused the flies to experience defects including retinal degeneration and reduced lifespan. With the intent of determining whether blueberry extract would improve these defects in fruit flies, the team compared the effects with those of a standard control diet. They found that flies being fed the blueberry extract had a lifespan up to 8 days (15 percent) greater than that of flies being fed a standard diet. The extract from blueberries—which are known to be rich in fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients—also seemed to improve eye defects found in the flies.

This increase is equivalent to an 8-year extended lifespan in humans, says Dr. Staveley, who notes that he plans to begin working with Sedna Nutra, a producer of powers from wild berries, to evaluate their blueberry and cranberry supplemental extracts.

“This study shows that a diet enriched with blueberry extract significantly improved 2 problems caused by alpha-synuclein,” says Staveley. “The first, a reduced lifespan caused by the [faulty] impression of this gene in the motor-control nerve cells, was partially restored by a blueberry diet. The second, a PARK1-dependent growth defect in the eye, particular to fruit flies, is made better when raised on the same food.”

These small but significant improvements demonstrate a role for diet in combating neurodegenerative disease, he says.

“It is always difficult to go from basic research such as this to practical applications,” says Staveley. “However, I suggest that there may be a great deal of promise in dietary enrichment—such as blueberries and related foods—as part of a strategy to counteract aspects of Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.”

—Mark McGraw