Being a laboratory worm may not sound like a fun existence, but one lucky group of experimental nematodes recently had a pretty good day at the office when they were force-fed maple syrup as part of a study into how the sugary gloop affects neurons. Sadly for them, their palate isn’t sophisticated enough to actually enjoy the syrup, although on the plus side their chances of developing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) were drastically reduced.
ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that causes irreversible damage to nerve cells – or neurons – resulting in paralysis and usually death. Though the causes of the condition are poorly understood, studies have shown that sufferers tend to produce a mutated form of a protein called TDP-43, which is thought to be somehow toxic to neurons.
Interestingly, it has previously been shown that several types of sugar can actually reduce symptoms of ALS in nematodes that had been genetically engineered to produce this mutated protein, suggesting that sugar may actually protect neurons from the toxic effects of TDP-43. Furthermore, a number of natural antioxidants have been found to provide similar protection to the neurons of rats and other animals that were genetically predisposed to develop the condition.
With this knowledge as a starting point, teenage scientists Catherine Aaron and Gabrielle Beaudry decided to investigate how maple syrup might be used to treat ALS. Aside from its delicious taste, maple syrup happens to be rich in both antioxidants and sugar, consisting of 98 percent sucrose – hence its sweetness.
They used worms that had been genetically engineered to produce mutated TDP-43, and fed them diets containing varying concentrations of maple syrup. Of those that received no syrup, 50 percent were completely paralyzed at 12 days of age. However, those that were fed on 4 percent maple syrup fared significantly better, with only 17 percent becoming paralyzed.
C. elegans worms were used in the study. Alex Parker laboratory, CRCHUM
The researchers also found that 25 percent of worms fed on 4 percent syrup had breakages in their neurons, compared with 53 percent of those that had received no syrup.
Next, the team isolated some of the antioxidants found in maple syrup in order to determine which of these had the most significant protective effect. Results showed that two particular antioxidants – gallic acid and 3,4-dihydroxybenzaldehyde (DHB) – were the most effective at alleviating ALS.
However, in isolation, neither of these were quite as successful at protecting the doomed worms as maple syrup itself, leading the study authors to suggest that the combination of these antioxidants with sugar is probably the most effective recipe. A full report of their work has been published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
The study was supervised by Alex Parker of the University of Montreal, who warns that, unless you happen to be a nematode, eating obscene amounts of maple syrup is likely to cause more health problems than it solves. “The life expectancy of C. elegans worms is only three weeks. They are spared the long-term toxic effects of sugar. Humans who consume comparable amounts of sugar risk developing chronic diseases such Type 2 diabetes and obesity,” he explained in a statement.