Plant-Based Flavonoids May Protect Neurons in Parkinson’s Disease

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Plant-produced flavonoids may help ward off Parkinson’s disease according to a new article from researchers in Malaysia and Australia. The report, titled “Protective Mechanisms of Flavonoids in Parkinson’s Disease,” appeared in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder in which dopamine cells in a region of the brain called the substantia nigra are lost, causing problems with movement including rigidity, tremors, and difficulties starting and stopping movements. Medications to treat Parkinson’s do not stop the disease but only temporarily help with symptoms. Preventing cell death in PD before it starts is a promising strategy for halting Parkinson’s disease or reducing its symptoms. That’s where flavonoids may provide an alternative option.

Flavonoids are a type of chemical known as a polyphenol, and are produced by plants as they photosynthesize. They cause the orange, blue, and purple color found in many plants and exist in many fruits and vegetables as well as food and drinks made from plants.

Oxidative stress — the production of damaging free radicals that can kill cells — is understood as a main mechanism for cellular damage in Parkinson’s disease. Flavonoids can activate antioxidants naturally-produced by the body, protecting neurons from death. Although most studies concentrate on the anti-oxidant properties of flavonoids, the chemicals have additional healthy benefits including anti-tumor, anti-viral and anti-bacterial effects.

In their paper, Kasthuri Bai Magalingam,  Ammu Kutty Radhakrishnan,  and Nagaraja Haleagrahara of International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur Malaysia and James Cook University, Townsville, Australia, review the existing evidence supporting  plant-based flavonoids for protection against Parkinson’s disease induced cell-death. Flavonoids protect dopamine-producing neurons both in vitro (grown in a dish) and in animal models of the disease, and increase levels of anti-oxidants within cells, such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase and can also suppress apoptosis, which is a type of cellular self-induced death. They can also prevent a process known as lipid peroxidation, which damages the fatty cellular membrane. Additionally, flavonoids appear to protect mitochondria, the main source of cellular energy. The plant-produced chemicals also activate genes that are specifically involved in all of these processes. These numerous effects combined add up to potent neuronal protection.

According to the researchers, although studies of flavonoids are promising, further research about exactly how they work is needed. “The design of the ‘magic bullet’ as a therapeutic approach to help either prevent or treat PD depends on our understanding of the mechanisms by which flavonoids counteract neuronal damage. Although some mechanisms have been described well, we are still far from getting the complete picture of protective mechanism of flavonoid polyphenol,” the authors state in their report.

In addition, the authors note that more research is necessary to understand how flavonoids cross the blood brain barrier that protects the nervous system from molecules present in the circulatory system. More work is needed to fully understand the promise of flavonoids for preventing Parkinson’s disease, although so far scientific evidence supports the idea that you should eat your vegetables.

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