Gelatins may protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease

A traditional Chinese medicine successfully protected neurons from amyloid-induced death

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Grandma might have the right idea when bringing Jell-O salad to every church potluck.

Gelatins are animal-derived protein fragments created by breaking down collagen — a protein found in connective tissues like skin and ligaments.

Gelatins are also widely used medicinally, from skincare to joint pain. But traditional Chinese medicine also claims that they protect the brain against deteriorating diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. And a recent study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology put this historically anecdotal remedy to the test.

Researchers first mimicked Alzheimer’s disease in a dish by treating lab-grown cells with a toxic protein fragment that accumulates in patient brain cells, called amyloid-beta. And like human Alzheimer’s disease, amyloid-beta treatment induced profound cell death in this model. But, surprisingly, gelatin treatment completely protected these brain-like cells from this toxicity.

To understand how gelatins are neuroprotective, they turned to mitochondria — the powerhouses of the cell. Mitochondria are cellular structures that generate energy in the form of a molecule called ATP. Because healthy cells need ATP to function, mitochondrial dysfunction is harmful to cell survival and the primary cause of brain cell death in Alzheimer’s disease. 

The researchers, therefore, hypothesized that gelatins prevent amyloid-beta-induced cell death through mitochondrial protection. Indeed, the gelatin-treated mitochondria showed reduced structural damage, improved ATP production, and lower oxidative stress. Furthermore, they believe gelatins exert these protective effects by blocking excessive calcium from entering the cell, which can trigger mitochondrial damage, oxidative stress, and ultimately cell death.

Of course, while these results are exciting, the human brain is a little more complex than a dish of cells, and more work is necessary to determine the therapeutic potential of gelatins in human disease.