A glass of wine a day could keep the mind sharp. Several scientific studies have linked resveratrol, a polyphenol found in grape skins, to a reduced risk in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, among other health benefits. Now researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles have published the results of a pilot study in the journal Experimental Gerontology, that finds the compounds in grapes can strengthen brain activity in patients just beginning to experience cognitive decline. They believe it may be proof that wine consumption could be a method of early prevention.
The UCLA team conducted the study with five men and five women, ranging from ages 66 to 82, who had experienced mild decline in cognition for at least six months. People who had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or another cause of dementia, or who were taking medication for it, were excluded.
The researchers divided the subjects into two groups. Half took a daily dose of a placebo and half took a freeze-dried powder made from California Vitis vinifera grapes, the equivalent of three standard servings of fresh grapes. That's approximately one and a half glasses of wine.
The researchers conducted various neuropsychological assessments on the subjects at the beginning of the study and again after six months of therapy. The most important tests conducted were brain PET scans, which measured metabolism in each distinct region of the brain.
"Each region participates in different cognitive abilities," explained Dr. Daniel Silverman, head of the Neuronuclear Imaging Section at UCLA and the lead author of the study. "We looked at regions of the brain that we knew [activity] would go down if a person was in the early stages of memory decline due to something like Alzheimer's." Those parts of the brain became less active with subjects in the placebo group, the study found, whereas subjects who had been consuming the grape powder experienced no significant decline in brain metabolism.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's today. It's the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Correlations between resveratrol and Alzheimer's have been explored in multiple studies. Neurodegenerative diseases are believed to be caused by oxidative stress and hampered anti-inflammatory processes. Resveratrol—abundant in red wine—has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
The key to this study is the focus on early stages of cognitive decline. "A trend that's been going on is to move to earlier and earlier stages of Alzheimer's," said Silverman. "The earlier you intervene, the less damage there will have been. Once there's damage, there's no reversing that."