News Briefs: Benefits of Cocoa Extract; Parkinson’s Disease; Depression; Stroke

News and views that affect your mind, mood and memory.

Cocoa Extract May Protect Brain Cells from AD

A chemical contained in the cocoa bean may offer promise in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Researchers working with mice bred to develop AD found that lavado, a cocoa extract, helped prevent inflammation and damage to nerve pathways that are associated with the neurodegenerative disease. The extract is not alkalized to remove acidity unlike more common processed forms of cocoa, and contains especially abundant amounts of polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that have been linked to lower risk for AD. In a report published online June 20, 2014 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the scientists reported that lavado cocoa appeared to prevent the formation of toxic beta-amyloid plaque, a hallmark of AD that causes damage to synapses (communication points between neurons). Impairment of synaptic function appears to be more important in promoting memory loss than loss of brain cells, according to the lead researcher. “Given that cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease is thought to start decades before symptoms appear, we believe our results have broad implications for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” the study’s lead author said. Although lavado cocoa is not currently generally available, these findings may one day lead to the development of supplements or new treatments.

Simple MRI Technique Identifies Early Parkinson’s Disease

A new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique holds promise for earlier detection of Parkinson’s disease (PD), a progressive movement disorder caused by a lack of the brain chemical dopamine. The brain-scanning technique, called resting-state functional MRI, was able to detect PD with 85 percent accuracy in a group of 13 people with early-stage disease, according to a report published online June 11, 2014 in Neurology. The MRI technique focuses on a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, looking for indications of lower connectivity associated with the beginning stages of PD. The technique avoids the use of radiation—a major feature of the more expensive PET scans currently available—and offers an inexpensive and broadly available way to test for PD and initiate earlier treatment.

Late-Life Depression Linked to Increased Risk for Alzheimer’s

Depression in older age may indicate changes in the brain that are associated with significantly greater risk for rapid development of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In a paper delivered at the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging 2014 Annual Meeting in June, researchers described the results of their analysis of medical and molecular imaging data on 371 individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI, early signs of memory and other cognitive problems). They found that compared to brain images of non-depressed participants, images of participants with MCI who suffered from depression revealed elevated levels of beta-amyloid, a hallmark of AD, especially in brain areas involved in mood disorders. “This combination of elevated amyloid levels and coexisting depressive symptoms constitutes a patient population with a high risk for faster progression to Alzheimer’s disease,” said the study’s principal author. He suggested that identifying and understanding risk factors, such as depression, that influence the disease process may help lead to new AD therapies.

Protein-Rich Diet May Help Ward Off Stroke

A review of studies examining the relationship between protein intake and stroke incidence in more than 250,000 participants found that individuals who consumed the greatest amounts of protein (about 20 grams a day) over a 14-year period were 20 percent less likely to suffer a stroke than were those who consumed little or no protein. Dietary protein is linked to lower blood pressure, which may help reduce stroke risk. Lean animal protein—such as protein derived from fish—provided the greatest benefit, with a 29 percent decline in stroke risk. Proteins derived from vegetables were associated with a 12 percent decrease in stroke risk, the authors reported in the June 11, 2014 online issue of Neurology. Experts suggest limiting consumption of animal proteins with high levels of saturated fat, as these foods may actually increase vulnerability to stroke.

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