November 9 Research Roundup: Coffee Reduces Risk of Alzheimer’s, Fish Can Decrease Asthma, and Gene Therapy for Lou Gehrig’s Disease

Pipette dropping pink liquid into colored test tubes

There are plenty of great scientific research stories out this week. Here’s a look at just a few of them.

Rejoice! Coffee May Reduce Risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

Research from the Krembil Brain Institute, part of the Krembil Research Institute, suggests that drinking coffee might protect against both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The research was published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

“Coffee consumption does seem to have some correlation to a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease,” stated Donald Weaver, co-director of the Krembil Brain Institute. “But we wanted to investigate why that is—which compounds are involved and how they may impact age-related cognitive decline.”

The researchers identified compounds called phenylindanes, which are caused by roasting coffee beans. These seem to inhibit both beta-amyloid and tau from clumping, two proteins common in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Dark roasted coffee seems to be more protective than light roasted coffee, because the roasting leads to more phenylindanes.

“What this study does is take the epidemiological evidence and try to refine it and to demonstrate that there are indeed components within coffee that are beneficial to warding off cognitive decline,” Weaver said. “It’s interesting but are we suggesting that coffee is a cure? Absolutely not.”

Neurotech Restored Walking Ability in People with Spinal Cord Injury

Using precise electrical stimulation of spinal cords, Swiss scientists at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne were able to get three chronic paraplegia patients to walk. The research, called the STIMO study, was published in the journals Nature and Nature Neuroscience.

“Our findings are based on a deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms which we gained through years of research on animal models,” stated EPFL neuroscientist Gregoire Courtine. “We were thus able to mimic in real time how the brain naturally activates the spinal cord.”

STIMO stands for Stimulation Movement Over-Ground. All the patients in the trial recovered voluntary control of leg muscles that they had been unable to use for years. Other studies published in the U.S. had similar results, but unlike those studies, the neurological function persisted past training sessions even after electrical stimulation was ended.

Jocelyne Block, Lausanne University Hospital surgeon who placed the implants in the patients stated, “The targeted stimulation must be as precise as a Swiss watch. In our method, we implant an array of electrodes over the spinal cord which allows us to target individual muscle groups in the legs. Selected configurations of electrodes are activating specific regions of the spinal cord, mimicking the signals that the brain would deliver to produce walking.”

Diet Rich in Fish Can Reduce Childhood Asthma Symptoms

Researchers at Australia’s La Trobe University found that a diet rich in salmon, trout and sardines could reduce symptoms of asthma in children. It was essentially a healthy Mediterranean diet enriched with fatty fish. “We already know that a diet high in fat, sugar and salt can influence the development and progression of asthma in children and now we have evidence that it’s also possible to manage asthma symptoms through healthy eating,” stated lead researcher Maria Papamichael. “Fatty fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids which have anti-inflammatory properties. Our study shows eating fish just twice a week can significantly decrease lung inflammation in children with asthma.”

The trial looked at 4 children from Athens, Greece, aged 5 to 12 with mild asthma. They were split into two groups. About half were instructed to eat two meals of cooked fatty fish or about 150 grams as part of the Greek Mediterranean diet every week for six months. The rest followed their normal diet. At the end of the six months, the group who ate more fish had reduced bronchial inflammation by 14 units. The results were published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.

Biodegradable Scaffold for Stem Cell Therapy for CNS Disorders

Researchers at Rutgers University have developed a tiny, biodegradable scaffold for stem cell transplants and drug delivery. It shows promise for central nervous system disorders. Stem cell therapies have been slowed by low cell survival rates, incomplete differentiation of cells and limited growth of neural connections. The researchers, who published their work in the journal Nature Communications, believe the scaffolds will help stem cells grow.

“It’s been a major challenge to develop a reliable therapeutic method for treating central nervous system diseases and injuries,” stated lead author KiBum Lee, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. 

The bio-scaffolds, which are biodegradable, mimic natural tissue and in test tubes and mice, had positive results. The researchers expect to test the nano-scaffolds in larger animals and hope to move to clinical trials for spinal cord injury.

Brain Cell Transplant Restores Vision in Rats

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) School of Medicine transplanted fetal retinal cells into the neurons in the vision centers of the brains of blind rats. The result was restored vision. Their work was published in JNeurosci, the Journal of Neuroscience.

“It’s been known that retinal sheet transplants can integrate into the degenerated eyes and allow the animals to detect light,” stated David Lyon, associate professor of Anatomy & Neurobiology at the UCI School of Medicine. “But, beyond rudimentary light detection it was not known how well the visual system in the brain functioned with the newly integrated retinal transplant.”

He went on to say, “In this study, we found that neurons in the primary visual processing center perform as well as neurons in animals with normal healthy retinas. These results show the great potential of retinal transplants to treat retinal degeneration in people.”

The authors note that retinal sheet transplants have been successful in animal and human studies, but their ability to restore complex vision hasn’t been assessed yet. These techniques may have broad applicability in age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

Researchers Cure ALS-Like Disease in Mice

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) ran successful animal studies of a gene therapy that appeared to cure a disease in mice similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting brain and spinal cord nerve cells. There are two types of ALS, sporadic and familial. Sporadic is the most common form in the U.S., making up 90 to 95 percent of all cases. Familial ALS (FALS) makes up 5 to 10 percent in the U.S., and as the name suggests, is an inherited form. In those families, there is a 50 percent chance each child will inherit the mutated gene and may develop the disease.

Of the FALS group, 20 percent of them have a mutation in the SOD1 gene that causes their ALS. 

Martin Marsala and Mariana Bravo Hernandez of the UCSD injected a compound that silenced the SOD1 gene into a virus. They injected the virus into mice with an inherited ALS-like disease, just above their spinal cords. 

Bravo Hernandez told New Scientist, “We’re injecting it beneath the membranes that protect the spinal cord, so there’s no barrier. That’s what allows us to impact all the neurons inside the spinal cord.”

In the mice receiving the treatment, onset of ALS symptoms was delayed by 80 days. In addition, the treated mice never hit muscle stiffness levels observed in untreated mice. There did not appear to be any long-term side effects.

The researchers presented their work this week at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting held in San Diego.

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