Beer buffs, rejoice: a component in that sweet nectar of the gods could help protect brain cells against a type of damage that has been linked to certain neurodegenerative disorders, such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should skip to the pub chanting “a beer a day keeps the Alzheimer’s away,” but it does look like this compound is worth investigating further as a potential candidate to prevent or slow the progression of certain neurodegenerative conditions.
The compound investigated, Xanthohumol, is an active component found in hops and beer. It’s a member of the flavonoid family, which are metabolites found in various plants that often give them their color. Interest in these compounds has grown significantly in recent years, whether in berries, chocolate or red wine, because of the range of health benefits that they may bestow when consumed in large enough quantities. For example, studies have shown that they may have cardioprotective effects and could play positive roles in cancer and inflammation.
One of the reasons that they have grabbed so much attention is because they are potent antioxidants. During normal aerobic (oxygen-using) metabolism, our cells produce various different molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are highly reactive molecules containing oxygen, such as hydrogen peroxide. While these molecules play a variety of important roles in the cell, such as assisting signaling pathways, excess amounts of ROS is damaging. This can either result from an overproduction of ROS, or from dysfunction of our inbuilt antioxidant systems. Either of these can lead to oxidative damage to various important molecules in the cell, such as proteins or DNA, which is cumulatively known as oxidative stress.
ROS are particularly active in the brain, and the oxidative damage that they can cause to neuronal cells is thought to be involved in the development of certain neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Since Xanthohumol is known to possess strong antioxidant properties, scientists wondered whether it could play a neuroprotective role in the brain, so they designed a study to test this hypothesis.
For the investigation, which has been published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers exposed rat neurons in a dish to Xanthohumol and then damaged them through oxidative stress. Not only did it scavenge damaging reactive molecules, but it also resulted in the upregulation of certain protective genes, called cytoprotective genes, which shield cells from oxidative stress and stress-related diseases such as cancer, neurodegeneration and inflammation. The researchers also found that the latter mechanism of action is achieved through the activation of a cellular protein called Nf2, which is a transcription factor. Transcription factors are important molecules in the cell that bind to stretches of DNA and then alter the rate of gene expression.
Although more research is warranted, particularly in live organisms, the scientists think these results suggest that Xanthohumol could represent a potential candidate for fighting neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. It's important to note that, while Xanthohumol seems to have a neuroprotective role in vitro, this does not mean that consuming large volumes of beer is healthy for the brain.