Plus new clues to the disease from ibuprofen and vitamin D.
Three new studies are shedding light on the mysteries of Parkinsons disease, one of the most common nervous system disorders with aging. A neurodegenerative brain disorder that leads to tremors and difficulty with movement and coordination, Parkinsons most often develops after age 50; 50,000-60,000 new US cases are diagnosed annually.
But new research suggests that those berries on your breakfast cereal or topping your yogurt might help reduce your risk. Xiang Gao, MD, PhD, of Harvard University, and colleagues compared Parkinsons risk and consumption of five foods rich in flavonoids, a type of antioxidant: berries, tea, apples, red wine and oranges/orange juice. The study used data on 80,336 women in the Nurses Health Study and 49,281 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.
Over about 20 years, 805 participants developed Parkinsons disease. Men with the highest total intake of flavonoids were 40% less likely to develop the disease than those with the lowest flavonoid consumption. No similar link was seen in women, however, for reasons researchers couldnt explain.
But when investigators focused on berries, rich in flavonoids called anthocyanins, they found that both men and women with the highest intakes were at 23% lower risk of Parkinsons disease. Reporting their findings to the American Academy of Neurology, Dr. Gao and colleagues cautioned that more research is needed before prescribing berries/anthocyanins as a defense against Parkinsons.
Barbara Shukitt-Hale, PhD, of Tufts HNRCA Neuroscience Laboratory, and colleagues have previously shown brain benefits from blueberries. The plethora of natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatories found in plants such as blueberries possess neuroprotective properties, she comments. We have shown that these polyphenolic compounds protect against age-related deficits in motor and cognitive function. The mechanisms involved in these behavioral/neuronal communication benefits are not yet fully understood, but our studies suggest that berries may actually reduce the signals created by inflammatory and oxidative stressors and increase the signals that are important in facilitating information concerned with learning and memory.
In another new study by Dr. Gao and colleagues, published in Neurology, people taking ibuprofen were about 40% less likely to be diagnosed with Parkinsons disease over six years than those using other pain relievers or none at all. The study, also using data from the two studies of health professionals, found no similar association for other painkillers. When these results were combined with six other studies, totaling 2,779 Parkinsons cases, an association between ibuprofen use and reduced risk persisted. No one is suggesting you should start popping ibuprofen- which has well-known side effects-to prevent Parkinsons disease. But the findings may open an alternate window into the origins of the condition. Alone among popular painkillers, ibuprofen affects molecules inside the nucleus of cells called PPAR-gamma receptors. A new clinical trial at the University of Rochester will test the theory that these receptors are involved in Parkinsons disease-possibly improving our understanding of the disease and leading to new treatments.
A third new study hints at a connection between vitamin D insufficiency and Parkinsons. Marian L. Evatt, MD, of Emory University, and colleagues studied data on 157 patients with early Parkinsons. Publishing their findings in Archives of Neurology, researchers reported that 69.4% of the patients had insufficient blood levels of vitamin D. Those data, Dr. Evatt and colleagues concluded, confirm a high prevalence of vitamin D insufficiency in newly diagnosed Parkinsons patients.
To the researchers surprise, however, over nearly 19 months of follow-up the patients vitamin D levels did not drop further. Despite likely reduced activity and sun exposure due to the disease, patients vitamin D levels actually went up.
While noting that the study was not designed to show cause and effect, Dr. Evatt and colleagues wrote, These findings are consistent with the possibility that long-term insufficiency is present before the clinical manifestations of Parkinsons disease. Low levels of vitamin D, they added, may play a role in the origins of the disease.
TO LEARN MORE: Neurology, online before print, dx.doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0b013e31820f2d79. Archives of Neurology, March 2011; abstract at dx.doi.org/10.1001/archneurol.2011.30. National Parkinson Foundation, 1-800-4PD-INFO (473-4636), firstname.lastname@example.org, www.parkinson.org.