Sticky proteins known as beta-amyloid plaques have previously been shown to play a role in Alzheimer's disease in the brain by interrupting the nervous system. With research into plant-based methods that can remove this strain of plaque from the body, or reduce their ability to form, would be an incredible step forward in fighting the disease.
To test out the effectiveness of the extracts, the researchers gave a yeast colony a healthy dose of beta-amyloid clumps and then treated the colony with the prickly pear and seaweed extracts, which dramatically improved the health of the yeast.
Researchers then moved on to fruit flies that were genetically altered to develop Alzheimer's symptoms, with the results showing another success for the extracts removing the plaque.
When given the seaweed extract, the median lifespan of the flies was extended by two days. When the prickly pear extract was used, the life extension doubled to four days. "Considering that one day in the life of a fruit fly is equivalent to around one year in humans, the results are dramatic," says a University of Malta report on the study. "Interestingly, the mobility of sick flies was improved by about 18 percent after treatment, highlighting a significant improvement."
Moving forward from this trial, the researchers figured out that in flies whose brains were stacked with alpha-synuclein, a sticky protein that plays a role in Parkinson's disease, treatment with the natural substances again prolonged their lives.
The researchers concluded that the extracts limit the build-up of the sticky proteins into large clumps that can harm the nervous system, thereby helping to keep both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's at bay.
Clinical trials are likely to follow this initial success, but, as lead study author Ruben J. Cauchi points out, the compounds are already available for use by consumers.
“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," he said. "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."
Read more on this a study at ScienceDaily