Common Mediterranean Plants Offer Promising Treatment for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's Disease

Prickly pear and brown seaweed extracts provide hope for age-related diseases.

Over the past few years, prickly pears have been showing up on the menu of many restaurants, from jams and cocktail drinks to main course dishes.

In the medical research world, this food trend may provide a big payoff for patients. A new study published in Neuroscience Letters showed the chemicals in 2 Mediterranean plants could be a possible drug candidate to combat neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

These age-related conditions are characterized by the accumulation of sticky protein clumps that damage the nervous system over time, eroding memory or mobility.

In the study, investigators extracted chemicals from prickly pear and brown seaweed. Initially, the scientists ran tests to determine the effects of the plant extracts on brewer’s yeast brimming with beta-amyloid clumps, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

After the yeast was exposed to the chemicals, its health dramatically improved. These results encouraged investigators to evaluate the molecules on fruit flies that were genetically modified to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms.

The results of the study showed the median lifespan of fruit flies that were regularly treated with the seaweed extract was prolonged by 2 days. When prickly pear extract was administered, the lifespan extended by 4 days. Furthermore, the flies’ mobility approved by approximately 18% after treatment.

According to the authors, these results are dramatic because 1 day of a fruit fly’s life is equivalent to about 1 year in humans.

“We have long been screening plants scattered across the Mediterranean for small molecules that interfere with the build-up of toxic protein aggregates,” said study co-author Neville Vassallo, MD, PhD. “The robust effects of chemicals derived from the prickly pear and brown seaweed confirm that our search has certainly not been in vain.”

Additional findings revealed that the chemical extracts prolonged the lifespan of flies with brains overloaded with alpha-synuclein, a gummy protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease, according to the study. The plant-derived molecules interfered with the build-up of both beta-amyloid and alpha-synuclein proteins to generate clumps less toxic to neurons.

“We believe that the discovery of bioactive agents that target pathways that are hit by multiple neurodegenerative conditions is the most viable approach in our current fight against brain disorders,” said lead author Ruben J. Cauchi, PhD. “A clear advantage of the drugs used in this study is that, in view of their excellent safety profile, they are already on the market as nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals.”

Currently, the investigators are working closely with the Institute of Cellular Pharmacology—–the company that extracts the chemicals––to optimize the discovery.