NEXT time you yell at the kids for drowning their pancakes in maple syrup, think again.
The syrup may protect their brains against the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease in later life.
35,000 people in Ireland have dementia, but, as longevity increases — girls born this year can expect to live to 100 years of age — the incidence of the disease is expected to increase dramatically.
However, new research in the US shows that pure maple syrup, which is harvested by drilling holes in the trunks of maple trees, may protect brain cells against the damage found in Alzheimer’s Disease.
At the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, in San Diego, last week, Dr Donald Weaver, professor of neurology at the University of Toronto, in Canada, revealed that experiments at the university’s Krembil Research Institute showed that an extract of the maple syrup may prevent the clumping of two kinds of protein found in brain cells.
There are many theories about the causes of Alzheimer’s Disease. One is that the condition is caused by protein mis-folding in the brain.
There are two proteins in the brain — beta amyloid and tau peptide — and when they fold or clump together, they form a plaque that is believed to be a cause of Alzheimer’s Disease.
“If, for example, you have one molecule of beta amyloid, you’re ok,” says Weaver, who is director of the Krembil institute. “However, if two of them clump together, they become toxic to the brain cells”. In order to ‘clump’, the proteins must change shape slightly.
“Our lab is particularly focused on drugs and what they can do for Alzheimer’s Disease, so we’ve been trying to come up with drugs to treat the condition.”
Initially, Weaver says, his team of researchers developed a computer model of the mis-folding process.
“Then, we screened lots of compounds in the computer, to see what compounds would prevent the clumping.”
Visualise yourself carefully stacking a pile of logs, he says.
“If you have a big bump on one of the logs, it prevents the others from staying on top.
“So, what we were looking for was a molecule which essentially prevented the simple protein molecules from sitting on one another, or clumping.” The team found that polyphenols, which are compounds found in plants, do this very successfully.
The scientists then investigated various sources of polyphenols, looking at a wide variety of products, including apples, chocolate, and maple syrup.
“We found some very interesting compounds in maple syrup, so we took extracts of it and checked it in test-tube situations,” says Weaver.
“One extract was quite potent at blocking the mis-folding, or clumping, of both the proteins.” Their next task, he says, is to identify the exact substance within maple syrup which contains these beneficial properties.
Once that element has been isolated and identified, he says, the team’s next task will be to demonstrate that this substance works in real-life in the human brain.
Over the next few years, the investigation will progress to evaluating the substance’s effect in humans, he says. “By 2020, we would hope some useful product would have emerged.”
Other research presented at the symposium showed that a pure maple-syrup extract prevented the ‘tangling’ of beta amyloid proteins, and protected the brain cells of rats — scientists have found that a decrease in brain-cell function is associated with Alzheimer’s Disease and with other neurological problems.
The symposium was told that extracts of maple syrup, from Canada, showed protective effects similar to resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, which is believed to protect nerve cells from damage and from the build-up of plaque that can lead to Alzheimer’s.
However, researchers acknowledge, further animal studies, and ones on humans, will be required to confirm these initial findings.
“We have a fair degree of optimism — Alzheimer’s Disease is a huge issue. It’s one of the largest-socio economic disasters heading down the road at us,” says Weaver.
“Our populations are ageing and people are living longer.” Statistics show, he says, that, by age 90, 40% of people have the condition, “and we are having more and more people reaching the age of 90.” This will be a huge economic burden, in terms of health care, he warns.
“Coming up with useful therapies is a major priority.
“There are lots of labs and pharmaceutical companies, which are endeavouring to identify drugs, and there is optimism that, within five to 10 years, someone will come up with a useful drug — ours is just one approach.”