Parkinson’s surprise: Scientists discover sesame seed chemical can protect against disease

OSAKA, Japan — Could the cure for Parkinson’s disease be sitting to the top of a toasted bun? A new study finds sesaminol, a naturally occurring chemical in sesame seeds, can protect the body’s neurons and dopamine levels — the two main targets of the condition. Researchers in Japan say their early tests are so promising, they are speeding into clinical trials to see if this common and natural ingredient in food stops Parkinson’s in humans.

Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological disorder which impairs movement, causes stiffness, and a loss of balance. Common symptoms include tremors in the hands and slurred speech that worsens with age. Currently, there is no cure for the disease.

In lab experiments, a team from Osaka City University finds sesaminol handles the oxidative stress which damages cells. The chemical regulates the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and antioxidants. Oxidative stress creates extreme pressure on the cells and causes these two components to become unbalanced. In Parkinson’s, the disease causes nerve cells in the brain which control movement to break down and die due to oxidative stress.

“Currently there is no preventive medicine for Parkinson’s disease,” says OCU Associate Professor Akiko Kojima-Yuasa in a university release. “We only have coping treatments.”

One man’s trash is another man’s breakthrough medication

Sesame seed oil is very popular for its nutty aroma and high burn-point. Manufacturers make it by extracting fatty oils from sesame seeds and throwing out the empty shells as waste. However, the Japanese team finds sesaminol levels are actually abundant in these wasted shells.

In experiments on lab cells, researchers uncovered that sesaminol protects against neuronal damage by promoting the movement of Nrf2, a protein which responds to oxidative stress. Sesaminol also reduced the production of intracellular ROS.

Through research on mice with Parkinson’s, the team found that the disease also impacts the production of dopamine. This neurotransmitter, called the “feel good” chemical, plays a major role in feelings of pleasure, mood, motor function, and decision making.

After feeding mice a diet containing sesaminol for 36 days, mice saw their dopamine levels increase. The mice also experienced significant improvements in motor performance and intestinal motor function during lab tests.

Kojima-Yuasa and her team say they’re ready to take their work into the clinical trial phase. They hope to prove the first-ever medication for Parkinson’s disease will come from a naturally occurring and easily obtainable food source.

The study appears in the journal Heliyon.

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