We’ve all heard that drinking one glass of red wine a day is good for your heart, and the medicinal properties of green tea have been touted for centuries, but new research from the University of Leeds, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, shows that the natural chemicals found in these two beverages may also help treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Green tea and red wine contain natural chemicals called ‘polyphenols’—also called antioxidants—such as EGCG and resveratrol, which are known to protect against a number of diseases, including certain cancers, stroke, and heart disease, said study co-author Jo Rushworth of the University of Leeds.
Using purified extracts of EGCG and resveratrol, Rushworth and her colleagues were able to identify and interrupt the process that allows harmful clumps of protein to latch onto and destroy brain cells. These findings could serve as a potential targets for developing drugs to treat Alzheimer's.
"This is an important step in increasing our understanding of the cause and progression of Alzheimer's disease," said lead researcher Nigel Hooper of the University's Faculty of Biological Sciences in a press release. "It's a misconception that Alzheimer's is a natural part of aging; it's a disease that we believe can ultimately be cured through finding new opportunities for drug targets like this."
The Nitty-gritty Details
In the U.S. alone, 5.4 million people currently live with Alzheimer's disease, making it the sixth leading cause of death in the nation. It is also “the only cause of death among the top 10 in the United States that cannot be prevented, cured, or even slowed,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association. And according to the 2010 World Alzheimer Report, “Alzheimer’s Disease International estimated that there are 35.6 million people living with dementia worldwide in 2010, increasing to 65.7 million by 2030 and 115.4 million by 2050.”
Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by the build-up of amyloid proteins in the brain that can clump together to form balls of different shapes and sizes. These balls latch on to the surface of nerve cells in the brain, causing them to misfire and eventually die.
However, researchers found that when they formed their own amyloid balls in a test tube and added red wine and green tea extracts to human and animal brain cells, the shape of the amyloid balls changed. They could no longer bind to proteins on the surface of nerve cells, eventually killing them.
“In our study, we showed that the major causative agent of Alzheimer’s disease—poisonous clumps of amyloid protein—can be prevented from latching on to, and killing, brain cells,” said Rushworth in an interview with Healthline. “In addition to using green tea and red wine extracts, we also looked at the specific parts of brain cells that allow the poisonous amyloid clumps to latch on like Velcro. We found that by removing a certain protein from brain cells, the amyloid clumps couldn’t attach and cause brain cell death. This may provide another target for developing anti-Alzheimer’s drugs.”
Green Tea and Red Wine in the Spotlight
Do the results of this study mean you should load up on red wine and green tea? According to Rushworth, this isn’t necessarily the case.
“In our study, we used purified extracts from red wine and green tea, instead of using the complete red wine or green tea,” she said. “This means that we can’t predict how much red wine or green tea would have to be drunk to have a potentially beneficial effect.”
In fact, it is difficult for substances contained in food or drink to penetrate the brain, so it’s unlikely that a cup of green tea or a glass of red wine would provide the required amount of these substances to prevent Alzheimer’s, Rushworth said.
“But it is possible to modify the chemistry of these substances to improve their uptake into the brain, thereby creating a potential drug for Alzheimer’s disease, and this would be the next step in our research,” she said. “However, it is interesting to note that the Mediterranean diet, which tends to include red wine, is renowned for its health benefits.”
The Next Step Toward Finding a Cure
While this research provides valuable insight into the cause and possible treatment of Alzheimer’s, more research must to be done before scientists can find a cure for this devastating disease.
“Another big problem to tackle is the fact that Alzheimer’s disease is very hard to diagnose and, by the time a diagnosis has been made, it is often too late to administer useful drug treatments,” Rushworth said. “The latest research suggests that, to be effective, we need to be treating Alzheimer’s before it can currently be detected.”
Finding the key processes that trigger Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most important steps toward finding a cure, said Rushworth.
“When we understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease, then we will be able to design a drug to stop it from happening, in the same way that we have drugs to cure other diseases,” she said. “With more funding for scientific research, we will defeat Alzheimer’s disease.”