This Breakfast Food Might Actually Prevent Alzheimer’s

It's a tastier option than you think. 


There are a lot of healthy breakfast options one would think would help protect the brain. Oatmeal, egg whites, yogurt, or a fruit salad come to mind. And they are all dull. The last thing we think about when pouring real maple syrup over a short stack is our brain health. But according to a study presented at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting, that is the case, so pour away.

It sounds like a fun way to prevent the disorder. Even so, there is a lot at stake. Every 67 seconds someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Over five million Americans are living with the condition right now. That is expected to skyrocket to 13.8 million by 2050. Today, Alzheimer’s costs the healthcare system $226 billion annually. Some health officials are warning that this enormous increase in cases could bankrupt Medicare if no serious alternations are made.

Alzheimer’s occurs when two proteins, beta amyloid plaque and tau peptide tangles, begin to form in the brain. The plaque builds up between neurons, while the tangles clump together. They come together forming globs that interfere with normal neuron function. The brain cells shut down. This causes inflammation which triggers the immune system to come in and eliminate the damaged cells. The two proteins build up and slowly march throughout the brain, hollowing the organ out in their wake. They first aim to take over the limbic system, responsible for our emotions, memory, and behavior.

It usually starts in the hippocampus. This is a seahorse-shaped area responsible for visual and verbal memory. Next comes the amygdala which regulates and expresses emotions. That is followed by the parietal lobes who control sequential tasks like cooking and dressing, and the frontal lobes responsible for social interaction and planning. As these proteins take over more and more territory, the organ begins to shrink. But the study presented at the Chemical Society found that real maple syrup extract prevented these proteins from clumping and tangling, thereby protecting neurons.

Currently, there is no way of knowing who will get Alzheimer’s, though it seems to run in families. There is no cure, but certain drugs can slow its progress. There are also preventative measures one can take. Regular exercise can cut your risk in half. Now diet is being seen as increasingly important.

At the Chemical Society’s meeting, Dr. Donald Weaver presented the findings about maple syrup. He hails from the University of Toronto. Its extract helped protect the microglial brain cells of mice. It also extended the life of a roundworm model with Alzheimer’s. These neuroprotective qualities were found to extend a subject’s lifespan.

25 studies were presented at the meeting in total, highlighting several neuroprotective foods including blueberries, pomegranates, curcumin, green tea, and even red wine. Real maple syrup was found to have a compound similar to resveratrol in red wine. That’s according to Dr. Navindra P.  Seeram, the organizer of the event. 

The President of the Quebec Federation of Maple Syrup Producers Serge Beaulieu also spoke. He mentioned that the sugary sap contains “100 bioactive compounds,” some of which have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. Phenolic compounds in maple syrup may be the reason the sap is so healthful. These are antioxidants known to clear the body of free radicals. Dr. Weaver said he "would not recommend chugging maple syrup just yet." More studies have to be conducted to corroborate these results.

Researchers have to see if future experiments where subjects actually digest the extract mirror these test tube experiments. If they do, the following step would be testing on humans. Though there are no guarantees, the preliminary results look promising. So the next time someone tells you to go easy on the maple syrup, you can shut them down with the facts. You’re not a glutton. You’re protecting your brain.

For more on the intersection of food and Alzheimer’s watch: 

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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