New research suggests that a compound commonly found in red wine and some fruits may protect our neurons against the unwanted effects of aging. In fact, the study suggests that the benefits may be equivalent to those of dieting and exercising.

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A new study shows that resveratrol – a compound found in red wine and the skin of red grapes – may have neuroprotective benefits in mice.

Resveratrol is a polyphenolic compound that can be found naturally in peanuts, the skin of red grapes, red wine, and in some berries.

Polyphenols are a type of phytochemical, which are believed to have antioxidant properties – namely, that they can fight the damaging effect of free radicals and protect the “youth” of our cells.

Some studies have suggested that resveratrol may help to prevent against cancer, heart disease, and various neurodegenerative illnesses.

New research strengthens the belief that the compound may protect the health of our neurons, as a mouse study shows that resveratrol and metformin (a drug commonly used to fight type 2 diabetes) may both protect our neural connections from the adverse effects of aging.

The new study – spearheaded by researchers from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke, VA – was published in the The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences. The research team was led by Gregorio Valdez, assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Our neurons communicate with each other through synapses – the space between brain cells that allows chemical signals to be exchanged. On average, a neuron forms around 1,000 synaptic connections with other neurons.

Some of these synapses are crucial for voluntary movement, and these are called neuromuscular junctions. These synapses pass on the “order” to move from our spinal cord neurons to the muscles.

As we age, our neuromuscular junctions tend to degenerate. In their previous research, Valdez and team showed that a healthful diet combined with regular exercise can help to protect neuromuscular junctions from age-related damage.

In this new study, the team investigated mice that were 2 years old. This is typically considered “old” for mice, given that their average lifespan is around 24 months.

They treated the mice with resveratrol for 1 year, and noticed that the compound had the same beneficial effects as a good diet and exercise.

Additionally, the researchers looked at the effect of metformin, and saw that while the drug slowed down the rate of muscle fiber aging, it did little to affect the aging of neuromuscular junctions. Valdez notes, however, that the drug may be able to protect the synapses if administered in a different dosage.

“Metformin is an FDA-approved drug to treat diabetes, but our study hints it may also serve the purpose of slowing the motor dysfunction that occurs with aging,” Valdez explains.

Regarding the benefits of metformin, Valdez says that his study might signal “an opportunity for researchers and medical doctors to look at the patient population using this drug and ask whether [it] also has a positive effect on motor and cognitive function in humans.”

As for the benefits of resveratrol, the lead author cautions against drinking large amounts of red wine to obtain the same neuroprotective effects as the ones seen in mice.

In wine, resveratrol is in such small amounts you could not drink enough of it in your life to have the benefits we found in mice given resveratrol. These studies are in mice and I would caution anyone from blasting their bodies with resveratrol in any form.”

Future research, Valdez suggests, should look at the exact mechanism behind the neuroprotective effects of resveratrol. “If we know the mechanism,” Valdez says, “we can modify resveratrol or look for other molecules that are more effective at protecting the synapses.”

Overall, the findings contribute to the larger aim of slowing down aging and its negative effects.

“Gait, balance issues, and impaired motor coordination contribute to health problems, accidents, lack of mobility, and a lower quality of life,” Valdez adds. “We work on identifying molecular changes that slow down motor deficits that occur with aging. I believe that we are getting closer to tapping into mechanisms to slow age-induced degeneration of neuronal circuits.”

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