A compound found in beets that give them their distinctive red color may also hold the key to stopping the processes in the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s, according to research presented by scientists from the University of South Florida.
The compound is called betanin. In tests, scientists showed that it helped suppress the misfolding of proteins called beta-amyloid, which accumulate and form into toxic plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
“We’re hoping that in an age when people are starting to look more at what they’re eating, that hopefully this is another source of data that people can use to understand that we’re trying to get you to do the same thing your mother’s been trying to do since you were a kid: Eat your vegetables,” said Darrel Cole Cerrato, a researcher from USF who worked on the study.
Here’s how scientists think it works: Beta-amyloid is a protein that can misfold and clump together in the brain, creating plaques that block neurons from communicating. According to the lead study author Li-June Ming, Ph.D, much of the damage in the brain happens through a process of oxidation–when beta-amyloid binds to metals like copper and iron in the brain, which appear from things like environmental exposure and diet. While scientists are still trying to figure out how and why proteins misfold, one possible explanation is that the metals can cause it, which then makes them form into plaques that cause neuron death. Betanin binds to those metals, and, in theory, blocks the metals from interacting with beta-amyloid.
“Our data suggest that betanin, a compound in beet extract, shows some promise as an inhibitor of certain chemical reactions in the brain that are involved in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Ming. “This is just a first step, but we hope that our findings will encourage other scientists to look for structures similar to betanin that could be used to synthesize drugs that could make life a bit easier for those who suffer from this disease.”
Researchers tested this by measuring how much oxidation—a process similar to rusting—was involved when betanin was added to copper and beta-amyloid. When betanin was added to a copper and beta-amyloid mixture, oxidation dropped by 90 percent.
“We can’t say that betanin stops the misfolding completely, but we can say that it reduces oxidation,” Cerrato says. “Less oxidation could prevent misfolding to a certain degree, perhaps even to the point that it slows the aggregation of beta-amyloid peptides, which is believed to be the ultimate cause of Alzheimer’s.”
This research was presented at 255th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.