(USA Today) Bob Sessions has never had a drop of alcohol in his life. Yet at age 86, the teetotaler is eager to see if a natural compound found in red wine can combat disease.
Sessions enrolls Wednesday in a first-of-a-kind government-sponsored study examining whether resveratrol can alter or delay the destruction of the brain in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. Sessions is one of 5.3 million Americans who have Alzheimer's, a fatal illness that has no treatment or cure. He was diagnosed 7½ years ago and still is in the early stages.
"If this research can help anyone, I will feel like I have contributed to a good cause," says Sessions, a former Methodist minister and academic. "I have lost family members to this disease and don't want to see my daughters or grandchildren suffer the same fate."
During the next 12 months, Sessions of Gaithersburg, Md., will make 10 visits to Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., one of 26 sites nationwide affiliated with the Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study. Participants will be given either a placebo or capsules of pure resveratrol, found in the skin of red grapes, tomatoes, dark chocolate and nuts. Studies on non-humans have shown it activitates a gene that protects the body and brain from aging. The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's is aging. Researchers will do baseline tests to identify biological markers of the disease and then other tests to determine if it is progressing.
"Alzheimer's is not an overnight process," says Laurie Ryan, program director for the National Institute on Aging's Alzheimer's Disease Clinical Trials program. "Symptoms don't appear until years after the disease has started. So the thought is if we can delay it from starting or progressing, we can add quality years to the end of life."
By the end of the study, participants receiving the resveratrol will be given 1,000 mg twice daily. That level of dosing can't be duplicated by sipping wine or eating bits of chocolate.
"We'll be testing levels equivalent to drinking 1,000 bottles of wine a day," says Georgetown's R. Scott Turner, the study's director. "We're trying mostly to determine the safety of that level, but I think it will be safe. Once we determine that, other studies would still have to be done before anything could be developed for the consumer, but this is a big step."
Turner's trial focuses on preventing tangles from forming in brain cells. For Alzheimer's patients, compared with people with normal cognitive skills, neurons die off at a faster rate and shed a protein called tau. Tau forms into tangles, causing havoc with the synapses required for cognitive functions. The researchers will test to see if neuron loss decreases in people who receive resveratrol.
Ryan stresses the disease is complex: "We don't have all the answers now. It's likely to require culminations of treatments."
Several pharmaceutical companies are doing studies on an antibody that would attack plaques, which accumulate between brain cells, and remove them like statins that gobble up bad cholesterol.
Sessions knows the research might be too late to help him. He first started forgetting little things, then bigger things such as lifelong neighbors. Not just names, but who they are.
"I look to Julia (his wife) during those times and she knows to help me," Bob says with a sparkle in his eye. "She knows a million good things about me and now is learning one or two not so good things."
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