Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Vulnerable Substantia Nigra

Blogging while out of town has proved more difficult that I thought. For one thing, we have free babysitting, so we've obviously been going out at night rather than staying in. Also, I am mostly limited to the iPad, which isn't as easy to blog from as a normal computer (yes, cry me a river, but true nonetheless). And I was planning on blogging about the creatine and vegetarians paper from the British Journal of Nutrition. However, It turns out my institution doesn't have access to the full text, and I really don't want to shell out $45 for a single paper that tells me to eat meat. I already eat meat, and if you want your brain to be tip top, probably best you do too, or supplement, supplement, supplement with that growing list (B12, zinc, taurine, creatine, carnosine, etc. etc.)

But anyway. A few weeks ago, Dr. Aaron Blaisdell, who I'm told will have access to all the best parties at the Ancestral Health Symposium, was kind enough to send me this paper - "Oxidant stress evoked by pacemaking in dopaminergic neurons is attenuated by DJ-1.". The paper is a bit technical. But hearkens back to a previous blog entry, Brain Efficiency. In that entry I talked about how Parkinson's Disease comes about when the dopamine-making neurons of the substantia nigra (thanks, Ned) poop out for some reason. No dopamine in the substantia nigra, and you get stiffness, dementia, tremor - Parkinson's Disease. Parkinson's is another one of those diseases that seems to be increasing faster than we might expect for the aging population. It is postulated that oxidative stress causes the problems (oxidative stress means burn-out, basically. Too much gas for too long, too much build-up of the toxic byproducts of making energy). The burn-out happens in the mitochondria, the energy factories of the cells (which makes sense). But no one knows why the mitochondria in the substantia nigra would be more vulnerable than the mitochondria in other cells.

Increasing the efficiency of the mitochondria by using certain supplements (such as coenzyme Q and creatine) which are also available from meat and organs from animal foods is currently being investigated as treatment for Parkinson's Disease. This new paper has some evidence for a mechanism why the mitochondria in the substantia nigra are so vulnerable as to be the canaries in the coal mine.

In the paper, researchers investigated some mouse substantia nigra(s?) and found that those particular neurons have some interesting properties. They seem to pulse in energy output, rather like a pacemaker of some sort. The pacemaking requires a lot of energy, as the cells have to let go of their energy and then build it up again at regular intervals. Since they burn through more energy doing this pacemaking than other dopamine-making neurons in neighboring brain areas, they seem to be more vulnerable to excess oxidative stress. So more vulnerable to burn-out resulting in Parkinson's Disease.

The solution (or, perhaps better stated as the possible prevention) is, of course, always pretty much the same. Eat a diet of nutrient-rich foods and avoid poisons that will stress your brain. Say no to excess fructose, wheat, and omega 6 fatty-acids and fake, processed foods. I have to say that going out into the real world on this vacation (not my kitchen or pantry) shows me once more just how ubiquitous the poisons are. We checked out some "pizza topping" cheese-like substance in a bag right next to the real cheese which looked like mozzarella, but was actually soybean oil, corn starch, and potato starch. Ick! And guess what - that mayonnaise "with olive oil" is still mostly soybean oil. Avoid!

CoEnzyme Q rides around the body in your cholesterol carriers, so sufficient cholesterol is important. We can make creatine, but when we eat it we get it mostly from muscle flesh. Vegetarians are low in creatine.

We have a certain design spec. It is remarkably flexible, yet in the post-industrial age we have managed to scribble far, far outside the lines of what our bodies consider food. Once again, straying too far for too many meals is really not a good idea.


  1. Just in case anybody wants to see the SN on an image:


  2. Emily,

    What is the actual title of the creatine/vegetarian paper? I will see if I can get the full text for you.

    BTW, your blog is awesome. Definitely more interesting than the undergraduate psych classes that I took in college :)


  3. Thanks Ned! I usually do link little pictures but it is more trouble to do so in the ipad...

    Justin - thank you! Fortunately my good paleo fairy has already emailed me the paper, so expect a new blog out shortly!

  4. Okay - added in my links, and fixed all those "substantial nigra"s - the autocorrect on the ipad is not science-oriented.