A compound found in the skins and fruit of pomegranates could offer Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease researchers a new avenue for quieting the debilitating illnesses, a new study from the University of Huddersfield suggests.

Data from Alzheimer’s Disease International estimates worldwide cases of dementia will triple by 2050 — a collection of illnesses widely regarded as a premier health concern of the 21st century, due to its destructive capabilities and lack of treatment options. Now scientists are showing the compound punicalagin, a polyphenol found in pomegranates, could inhibit inflammation in brain cells known as microglia.

Dr. Olumayokun Olajide, a University researcher interested in the anti-inflammatory properties of natural products, led the research. He and his team ran tests of punicalagin on the cultured brain cells of rats. They looked at the interplay between the compound and any traces of inflammation found in the microglia. Parkinson’s disease, and to a lesser extent Alzheimer’s, relies on compounding inflammatory damage to destroy cells in a cascade.

The proof-of-concept study found punicalagin did, indeed, reduce levels. But the optimal dosage demands further research before work can begin on humans. In the meantime, Olajide says, pomegranate juice could act as an effective stand-in.

“We do know that regular intake and regular consumption of pomegranate has a lot of health benefits,” he said, “including prevention of neuro-inflammation related to dementia.” Consumers should be careful to buy products that are 100 percent pomegranate juice, as prior research has discovered the unsettling truth that not all juices are what they seem. In 100-percent concentrations, roughly 3.4 percent will be the key compound.

Where traditional medicine has come up short for dementia prevention and treatment, science has offered a number of alternative remedies. Cognitively demanding tasks, such as brain training games, have repeatedly been found to preserve a person’s mental health into old age. Herbal supplements, too, may delay the slide into neurodegeneration — the breakdown of neural connections within the brain. These include the compounds found in rosemary and spearmint. Research has also implicated caffeine as having a protective effect.

As for pomegranate research, Olajide says his next step is collaborating with organic chemist Dr. Karl Hemming. Together the two will produce compound derivatives of the pomegranate compound that could eventually be used in oral tablets to combat inflammation. And not just the inflammation found in the brain: Along the same treatment path, the drug could also fight rheumatoid arthritis and certain cancers.

According to Olajide, the research is a natural extension of his upbringing in Nigeria, where natural remedies were the go-to source for healing. "African mothers normally treat sick children with natural substances such as herbs. My mum certainly used a lot of those substances,” he said.

Source: Olajide O, Kumar A, Velagapudi R, Okorji U, Fiebich B. Punicalagin inhibits neuroinflammation in LPS-activated rat primary microglia. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. 2014.