Researchers already know that reducing the amount of calories we consume can go some way to protecting us against developing neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, but why this should be the case has so far proved to be a mystery.
However, thanks to a recent study by a group of researchers from Monash University Biomedicine Discovery Institute, we’ve now gained a greater insight into why a reduction in calories has this protective effect, meaning that we could be one step closer to finding treatments to slow or prevent the disease, without having to actually eat less.
Our bodies contain a hormone known as Ghrelin that controls our hunger. The researchers at Monash found that by decreasing the calorie intake in animal models of Parkinson’s, and thus increasing the production of Ghrelin, the usual hallmarks of the disease didn’t develop. This finding was confirmed by comparing mice that did and didn’t produce Ghrelin, with those that didn’t produce the hormone exhibiting much more severe symptoms of Parkinson’s when subjected to a reduced calorie intake.
Scientists believe that Ghrelin controls more than just our hunger; that it also tells us that we should go and find food, and reduces the anxiety we feel about finding food by triggering our memory to help us remember where we last found it. It also plays a part in keeping the brain healthy by stopping the degenerative process. So far from merely controlling our hunger, it actually helps to keep us alive.
During their research, the team identified a protein called AMPK as the molecular mechanism used by Ghrelin to stop the dopamine cells in the brain from degenerating. They were also able to imitate the effect of restricting calories by giving Ghrelin and initiating the activation of AMPK only in dopamine cells, thus reproducing the neuroprotective benefits of restricting calories without having to cut the amount of food.
The researchers believe that this mechanism may also help to protect against other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. By triggering the brain to believe it’s on a calorie controlled diet at the onset of degenerative symptoms, they’ll be able to turn on Ghrelin’s protective and preventative effects.
This research was published in the March 9th edition of the online Journal of Neuroscience.