Red wine might be good for the heart, but it kills off brain cells, right?
Researchers have known for a while that red wine can delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – meaning that it actually protects against brain-cell death.
If this sounds counterintuitive and perplexing, the scientists could only agree. Until recently, they weren’t sure what was going on.
The celebrated health-giving antioxidants in red wine are assumed to play a part by reducing oxidative stress – where your body struggles to detoxify dangerous chain reactions at an atomic level – but scientists know that other factors are at play, because more significant destructive processes are also being curtailed.
This week, Dr Adelaida Esteban-Fernández from the Institute of Food Science Research in Madrid published an exciting paper in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition that offers new clues as to how red wine stops brain cells from dying.
The scientists were replicating the conditions related to the initial stages of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
They found that metabolites in the wine protected the cells from dying – acting as a block to the stress conditions. The metabolites were active at different stages in the cell -signalling cascade – or collapse that was leading to cell death.
It appears there are compounds in red wine that combat the building up of protein plaques that clog neural pathways (responsible for the confusion and loss of memory in Alzheimer’s); suppresses neuroinflammation, modulates (keeps steady) signalling pathways, and decreases mitochondrial dysfunction. The mitochondria is the powerhouse in our cells; if it goes out of whack, the cell dies.
Last month it was widely reported that scientists from Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute had significantly slowed brain ageing in mice after giving them a substance called resveratrol – which is found in grape skins. Tests on elderly mice showed the compound preserved synapses called neuromuscular junctions, which relay movement signals from the brain to the muscles.
Mice who had been given resveratrol from one year of age had more youthful neuromuscular junction synapses at two years old than those who had not.
“I believe that we are getting closer to tapping into mechanisms to slow age-induced degeneration of neuronal circuits,” said the study’s primary author, assistant professor Gregorio Valdez.
Red wine contains more resveratrol than white wine because it is fermented with the grape skins.
However, while the compound has pharmaceutical potential, it’s not clear if red wine contains enough resveratrol to be beneficial, let alone ward off old age.
But before you start downing bottle after bottle of red, remember alcoholic dementia and the myriad other dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. Drink responsibly.