This is my first post for this project. Normally I let Dr. Steve do the writing, but this is a topic I really want people to understand. I’ve been talking as much as I can with folks on Facebook who are members of various Parkinson’s groups. Some groups provide more emotional support, some focus on practical tips, and some are interested in research. I see what concerns people, what people are confused about, and what gets them excited. BTW, feel free to friend me.
Recently there’s been a buzz about a chemical found in pomegranates that might help people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Previously there was a buzz about cinnamon, and before that I think it was the spice turmeric. So what’s the story? If I have Parkinson’s should I eat more pomegranates? Or maybe I should take pomegranate extracts in capsule form?
We’re not against natural substances!
Now, before you start assuming I’m going to be bashing these natural substances, take a deep breath. This is what we study. We love natural substances. And we are not under any obligation from drug companies, or doctors, or the FDA, or academic institutions. We can speak freely about natural substances. Because of politics, our friends at other institutions can’t. But that’s a topic for a different post.
Our work at Stop Parkinson’s is about making predictions about what combination of natural substances is most likely to help people with Parkinson’s. Within a few months we hope to make public predictions about what can slow or even stop Parkinson’s progression. We do this by creating very smart computers to see patterns in huge amounts of data and text that humans couldn’t possibly find. And since we’re already making predictions, we might as well turn them into recommendations. Right?
Most biochemists and nutrition scientists take supplements. Though few will admit it publicly. There are two PhD scientists on our team and both of us take extracts of certain natural substances every day. It’s not just to be cool – we know what we’re doing! Another member of our team has a husband with Parkinson’s, and he is taking a combination of natural substances our computers designed for his PD. Early versions of the predictions I mentioned above. So we don’t hate the idea of supplementation. But let’s not waste our money. Let’s do it smart. Let’s minimize the risks, and maximize the potential benefit.
The Pomegranate Buzz
Here are some of the headlines we’ve seen in the last few days.
- Research underway to create pomegranate drug to stem Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Creating pomegranate drug to stem Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s
- Scientists Turn To Pomegranate To Develop Dementia Drugs
- Pomegranate compound may treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- The onset of Alzheimer’s disease can be slowed and some of its symptoms curbed by a natural compound that is found in pomegranate.
- Pomegranates Might Slow down Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Pomegranate Compound: New Natural Drug to Aid Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Alzheimer’s And Parkinson’s Drug Made From Pomegranate
The vast majority exaggerate the significance and direct applicability of the actual research. I don’t want to link to them because I don’t want to give them any publicity. But you can find them easily enough by searching on Google.
The Science of Pomegranates and PD
All these articles are referencing a single recent paper:
Published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research on July 28, 2014, by researchers at the University of Huddersfield, in the UK.
One of the mistakes that non-scientists make with research papers is assuming each represents facts. If a paper supports some view then that view must be considered validated and already universally accepted as fact. Especially if the paper is the most recent paper on the subject. They think that if it’s the latest research then it must be the most advanced, the truest research.
But that’s just not the way science works. Scientists look at papers like a conversation back and forth through time. Sometimes it’s more of a debate than a conversation. They consider the total body of research rather then just the latest paper. They assign weight, in their own heads, to each piece of evidence supporting various hypotheses about a particular subject of interest. What scientists do in their heads, our Machine does using its algorithms, and stores those weights in its databases.
So this latest paper on pomegranates and neurodegenerative diseases was interesting. It showed once again that plant based and other natural chemicals do amazing things and are very powerful. There have been literally thousands of studies making this point with thousands of different substances. Pomegranates themselves are fantastic fruits containing very, very interesting chemicals that have the potential to do very important things. But here are some points that might put this paper into perspective for you:
- It studied rats, not people.
- Rats don’t get PD.
- The paper was able to show a reduction in inflammation in microglia cells.
- Specifically, using a purified chemical found in pomegranates called punicalagin they were able to reduce some molecular markers of inflammation in these specialized brain cells.
- But the rats didn’t eat pomegranates, and they didn’t take pomegranate extract pills.
- The experiments were done with cells in culture and brain slices.
- The scientists have no idea if eating more pomegranates will help Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s patients.
Now, I’m not mentioning these things to criticize the paper. I’m just suggesting that it doesn’t say what you and the rest of the internet thinks it says.
Here’s another thing non-scientists missed when they wrote articles and tweeted about the latest paper. They missed this paper published last year:
Published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging on December 5, 2013 by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Neurology
What??? Using a common rat model of PD, another team of scientists made the opposite observation! This time the rats drank pomegranate juice by mouth. Live rats. They found increased dopamine neuron loss, greater inflammatory response, and heightened neurodegeneration!!! Now, this team of scientists were not anti-supplementation either. They were fully prepared to find that pomegranates were neuroprotective, just like hundreds of other natural substances have been shown to be. So this result was very much a surprise for them.
Now, there are issues with this paper too that I won’t get into here. And again, these scientists have no idea if pomegranates will help or hurt people with Parkinson’s. I only mention it here to encourage you to get your science from scientists. Not from pop sci articles, not from natural health gurus, and not from Twitter or Facebook (unless it’s from me, haha), and not even from doctors (who are not scientists, and don’t study nutrition).
The Fallacy of the Magic Bullet
Some call it the silver bullet fantasy. It’s the hope that all my troubles go away if I can just find the right substance. Usually it’s a plant extract. Sometimes it’s cannabis. Often it’s somebody’s philosophy or anecdotal protocol found in a book or website somewhere.
The desire to help oneself is a healthy one. We all know instinctively, or maybe with very good reason, that there’s much more out there to help us than what the FDA approves and the doctor prescribes. The drug companies don’t have a monopoly on therapy. And we know that nature produces some very powerful chemicals. Many modern drugs are based on chemicals found in plants. But plant chemicals are difficult to patent, so the chemicals are changed slightly to make them new, and better for business.
So when a new study comes out about a plant chemical in relation to our health goal of interest, it’s natural to get excited. These foods and spices are relatively cheap, they’re safe, and they contain powerful substances. So why not, right?
The problem is that PD is a complex, multifactorial disease. It is a chain reaction fed by multiple biochemical pathways that each must be modified simultaneously if one hopes to slow or stop PD progression in a meaningful way. Unfortunately there is no magic bullet for PD. And no silver bullet either.
But Don’t Lose Hope
The artificial intelligence (AI) we’ve installed in the computers we’ve created (we call it lovingly "The Machine") is helping us find the best combination of safe, natural substances selected to modify the most effective combination of pathways. Combinatorial therapeutics is not our idea. But combining AI with a library of safe, natural substances is. There is no magic bullet, but it seems there are many bullets of different types, that when combined, are much more likely to produce the result we all want. If you are interested, we will publish these combinations of natural substances on our email list here: http://eepurl.com/DHMEv
And don’t forget to spread the word!!! (Please use the buttons below)
Nutrition Scientist at Stop Parkinson's
Dr. Ben specializes in nutrition, statistics, and machine learning. He has a PhD in nutritional epidemiology and is currently a postdoc at a research institution in Texas.