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Mediterranean Plants May Help Fight Brain Diseases


Prickly pears are displayed for sale at a stall in Beirut, Lebanon, July 22, 2014. A dozen prickly pears are sold for approximately $4 in the Lebanese market.

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

In the future, chemicals from plants found in and around the Mediterranean may be used to help treat people with brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

These two diseases are age-related and neurodegenerative. Neurodegenerative relates to the degeneration of nervous tissue, especially the brain.

People suffering from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's have deposits of sticky plaque in their brains. Over time, this plaque reduces brain function. Eventually, it causes death.

Scientists say plaque can be reduced

But scientists say the plaque deposits can be reduced with chemicals from plants, including prickly pear and brown seaweed. Scientists say the chemicals — or, extracts — appear to replace the harmful, sticky plaque with deposits that are less harmful.

These scientists are researchers at the University of Malta and the National Center of Scientific Research at the University of Bordeaux.

They tested the chemical extracts of the plants on a substance called Brewer's yeast. This yeast had plaque deposits similar to those seen in Alzheimer's disease. Scientists say the health of the yeast improved greatly after exposure to the chemical extracts.

Researchers then tested the extracts in fruit flies that were genetically changed to develop symptoms of Alzheimer's.

They found that when the flies were given brown seaweed extract, their lifespans increased by two days. Prickly pear helped the insects live four days longer.

That may not sound like a long time. However, the researchers remind us that one day in the life of a fruit fly is equal to one human year.

Researchers also noted that movement in some diseased insects improved.

They reported their findings in the journal Neuroscience Letters.

The best way to fight neurodegenerative diseases

Researchers say that the sticky plaques in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases appear to form through the same biological pathways. Targeting these pathways, they say, is the best way to fight the diseases.

The lead author of the study is Ruben Cauchi of the University of Malta's Center for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking. He says the Mediterranean plant extracts are already used in health foods and some cosmetics. So, they are very safe.

The research team is working with a company that extracts the chemicals for commercial use as so-called "fountain of youth" products.

And that’s the Health & Lifestyle report.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Jessica Berman wrote this report for VOA News. Anna Matteo adapted it for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

Check your understanding of the story by taking this reading quiz.

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Words in This Story

neurodegenerative – adj. relating to or marked by degeneration of nervous tissue

degeneration – n. deterioration of a tissue or an organ in which its function is diminished or its structure is impaired

extract ­– n. a substance that you get from something by using a machine or chemicals

deposit – n. an amount of something (such as sand, snow, or mud) that has formed or been left on a surface or area over a period of time

Brewer’s yeast – n. a yeast used or suitable for use in brewing; also : the dried ground-up cells of such a yeast used as a source of the vitamin B complex

plaque – n. medical : a change in brain tissue that occurs in Alzheimer's disease : medical : a harmful material that can form in arteries and be a cause of heart disease

exposure – n. the fact or condition of being affected by something or experiencing something : the condition of being exposed to something

extract ­– v. to get (a substance) from something by the use of a machine or chemicals

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