Better outcome with blueberries

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Andrew Robinson
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MUN research suggests Parkinson’s patients may benefit from berry

Research conducted at Memorial University suggests those living with Parkinson’s disease may want to consider consuming blueberries to reduce the effects of the neurodegenerative disease.

Vivian Healey picks blueberries in this photo. Researchers say that blueberries may have a significant effect in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. — Telegram file photo

MUN biology professor Brian Staveley and former MUN graduate student David Lipsett co-authored a paper based on their research that quarterly journal Advances in Parkinson’s Disease will publish next month.

By feeding blueberry extract to fruit flies carrying a gene linked to Parkinson’s disease, Staveley and Lipsett were able to counteract symptoms of the disease as exhibited by other flies.

“We already knew we could counteract some of the effects of Parkinson’s in flies with gene therapy, but could we do it with diet?” said Staveley. “If you’re a human being and you’re alive now, it’s too late to do gene therapy with you, because we don’t even allow that yet. But we can certainly advise you to eat a bowl of blueberries.”

The alpha-synuclein gene is inherited and has been linked to some Parkinson’s cases. More than a dozen unique genes have been linked to Parkinson’s.

“If you have a strange version of (the alpha-synuclein gene), it leads to Parkinson’s,” said Staveley, clarifying that the gene does not cause the disease but can increase the likelihood it will develop.

For this research, the alpha-synuclein gene was placed in the fruit flies, with some receiving blueberry extract and others none. Those who received the extract lived for 60 days on average — eight days more than flies with no extract.

One day in a fruit fly’s life is equivalent to one year of a human’s, according to Staveley. Fruit flies in his controlled laboratory environment typically live for 82 days.

“As far as days go, it doesn’t sound like much, but if you told somebody that had inherited a type of Parkinson’s that you could improve their life or let them live for an extra eight years, that would probably be a big deal.”

Make no assumptions

He notes that one should not immediately assume an extra eight days in a fly will correlate to eight extra years in a human’s lifespan.

They also noticed a developmental eye defect associated with Parkinson’s was barely detected in the flies fed blueberry extract.

According to Staveley, who has worked extensively with fruit flies to research how cells stay alive and die, such insects make for good test subjects when it comes to researching diseases.

“We know a lot about the basic biology behind a lot of different diseases ... because of fruit flies,” said Staveley.

Fruit flies have been used as test subjects for Parkinson’s since 1997 when Harvard researchers first placed a genetic cause of the disease in flies and identified over time symptoms consistent with Parkinson’s.

Last November, Staveley gave a presentation to the Parkinson Society of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“I talked about a whole bunch of things, but the thing they were the most interested in and came up to me after my talk was about the blueberries,” he said, mentioning some asked whether other berries would produce similar results and if it makes a difference how they are prepared.

“I suspect the blackberries are probably just as good — I just haven’t done the experiments. ... I would say that eating and putting berries into your diet, either blueberries or any of the berries with the same blue pigments, is probably not going to do you any harm. These experiments we’re doing with flies show a lot of promise.”

Staveley is hoping to further research the benefits of blueberries by working with Sedna Nutra, a company based in Markland using wild blueberries to create blueberry extract.

“I’m pretty sure they’re going to have  a really strong effect on these flies,” he said.

Organizations: Parkinson Society of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Markland

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  • joan pluta
    April 25, 2014 - 19:06

    My husband has just been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and I am scared to death! I need help to know what to do to make his life...and OUR lives as happy and easy as possible.