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Artificial Sweeteners Could Treat Parkinson’s Disease, Study Finds

Artificial Sweeteners Could Treat Parkinson’s Disease, Study Finds

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Artificial sweetener is good for more than just sweetening candy

Often an ingredient in sugar-free gum and candy as well as in medicine, mannitol is now believed to be a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. A study found that mannitol prevents the protein α-synuclei from clumping and forming in the brain, a process associated with Parkinson’s disease, according to Science Daily.

Studies conducted on both fruit flies and mice found that with the application of mannitol, amounts of α-synuclei protein in the brain reduced significantly. Mannitol, a sugar alcohol formed by fungi, bacteria, and algae, is used as diuretic to cleanse the body of excess fluids and is also used during surgery to help enable blood flow to the brain in order to ease the passage of other medicines.

If the results of the study are accurate, the artificial sweetener could treat Parkinson's disease and other diseases like Alzheimer’s and Huntington diseases.

Diet & Nutrition

While there is no prescription for a PD-specific diet, to maintain overall good health most people living with Parkinson’s disease should eat a variety of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, milk and dairy products, and protein-rich foods such as meat and beans. Also consider including nuts, olive oil, fish and eggs to your diet, for their beneficial fats.

Parkinson’s disease can be seen in your handwriting

By the time a patient notices the symptoms, treatment options against the progression of Parkinson’s is limited. While some of us might rather live on in ignorant bliss until the disease hits us in the face in older age, a new tool from the University of Haifa finds that with Parkinson’s, the writing is on the wall: the disease can be detected much earlier, through a person’s handwriting.

A more recent study from Hebrew University says constipation might be a more reliable cue, and it can be a symptom appearing 20 years before the disease shows its face.

Had Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox been able to go back to the future he might have discovered that constipation is an early sign for Parkinson’s Disease.

Some scientists already figure that the high incidence of Parkinson’s in some Middle East communities is due to pesticides, and that artificial sweeteners may hold promise for a treatment. But earlier diagnoses for earlier intervention?

The University and nearby Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel compared the writing process of 40 sick and healthy subjects and now suggests their method as “an innovative and noninvasive method of diagnosing Parkinson’s at a fairly early stage,” they write.

Today Parkinson’s disease is determined by the diagnostic ability of the physician, who can generally identify the clinical symptoms only when the disease is at a relatively advanced stage.

They use a physical evaluation or a test called SPECT, which uses radioactive material to image the brain. The latter, however, is no more effective in diagnosing the illness than an expert doctor and it exposes the patient to unnecessary radiation exposure. We don’t want that!

Studies from recent years show that there are unique and distinctive differences between the handwriting of patients with Parkinson’s disease and that of healthy people. However, most studies that were conducted to date have focused on handwriting focused on motor skills, such as the drawing of spirals, and not on writing that involves cognitive abilities, such as signing a check.

According to Prof. Sara Rosenblum from Haifa University, Parkinson’s patients report feeling a change in their cognitive abilities before detecting a change in their motor abilities and therefore a test of cognitive impairment like the one performed in this study could attest to the presence of the disease and offer a way to diagnose it earlier.

In the study, the researchers asked the subjects to write their names and gave them addresses to copy, two everyday tasks that require cognitive abilities. Participants were 40 adults with at least 12 years of schooling, half healthy and half known to be in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease (before obvious motor signs are visible).

The writing was done on a regular piece of paper that was placed on electronic tablet, using a special pen with pressure-sensitive sensors operated by the pen when it hit the writing surface. A computerized analysis of the results compared a number of parameters: writing form (length, width and height of the letters), time required, and the pressure exerted on the surface while performing the assignment.

Analysis of the results showed significant differences between the patients and the healthy group, and all subjects, except one, had their status correctly diagnosed (97.5% accuracy). The Parkinson’s disease patients wrote smaller letters (“micrograph”), exerted less pressure on the writing surface, and took more time to complete the task.

According to Prof. Rosenblum a particularly noticeable difference was the length of time the pen was in the air between the writing of each letter and each word.

“This finding is particularly important because while the patient holds the pen in the air, his mind is planning his next action in the writing process, and the need for more time reflects the subject’s reduced cognitive ability. Changes in handwriting can occur years before a clinical diagnosis and therefore can be an early signal of the approaching disease,” Prof. Sara Rosenblum, one of the researchers said.

This new advance is one more reason to keep cursive in school, even as more and more schoolchildren use the tablet or computer to write. And linked with a tablet is another way of providing remote medicine to people in disadvantaged and remote communities. We see a new Kickstarter campaign for someone to start. Anyone?

Can Mannitol Artificial Sweetener Stop Parkinson’s?

Artificial sweeteners may have some complicated side-effects or contra-indications for people with existing health effects. But artificial sweeteners could help people beyond losing weight, cavity prevention and reducing blood sugar: a new study from Israel has found that mannitol, widely used in chewing gum, could slow down the effects of Parksinson’s disease.

Mannitol, a sugar alcohol produced by fungi, bacteria, and algae, now was originally isolated from the secretions of the flowering ash and called manna after its resemblance to the Biblical food.

Besides gum, the sweetener is also used in the medical field — it’s approved by the FDA in the US as a diuretic to flush out excess fluids and used during surgery as a substance that opens the blood/brain barrier to ease the passage of other drugs.

In the new research study Profs. Ehud Gazit and Daniel Segal have found that mannitol also prevents clumps of the protein α-synuclein from forming in the brain — a process that is characteristic of Parkinson’s disease. This disease can appear in normal populations, but is linked also to pesticide and chemical exposure – see our story about the Bedouins in Beersheva, Israel.

These results, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and presented at the Drosophila Conference in Washington, DC in April, suggest that this artificial sweetener could be a novel therapy for the treatment of Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

After identifying the structural characteristics that facilitate the development of clumps of α-synuclein, the researchers began to hunt for a compound that could inhibit the proteins’ ability to bind together. In the lab, they found that mannitol was among the most effective agents in preventing aggregation of the protein in test tubes. The benefit of this substance is that it is already approved for use in a variety of clinical interventions, Prof. Segal says.

Next, to test the capabilities of mannitol in the living brain, the researchers turned to transgenic fruit flies engineered to carry the human gene for α-synuclein.

To study fly movement, they used a test called the “climbing assay,” in which the ability of flies to climb the walls of a test tube indicates their locomotive capability.

In the initial experimental period, 72 percent of normal flies were able to climb up the test tube, compared to only 38 percent of the genetically-altered flies.

The researchers then added mannitol to the food of the genetically-altered flies for a period of 27 days and repeated the experiment. This time, 70 percent of the mutated flies could climb up the test tube. In addition, the researchers observed a 70 percent reduction in aggregates of α-synuclein in mutated flies that had been fed mannitol, compared to those that had not.

These findings were confirmed by a second study which measured the impact of mannitol on mice engineered to produce human α-synuclein, developed by Dr. Eliezer Masliah of the University of San Diego.

After four months, the researchers found that the mice injected with mannitol also showed a dramatic reduction of α-synuclein in the brain.

The researchers now plan to re-examine the structure of the mannitol compound and introduce modifications to optimize its effectiveness.

For the time being, mannitol may be used in combination with other medications that have been developed to treat Parkinson’s but which have proven ineffective in breaking through the blood/brain barrier, says Prof. Segal. These medications may be able to “piggy-back” on mannitol’s ability to open this barrier into the brain.

Before you start stocking up on gum — although the results look promising, it is still not advisable for Parkinson’s patients to begin ingesting mannitol in large quantities, Segal cautions. More testing must be done to determine dosages that would be both effective and safe.

The Truth on Artificial Sweeteners

No getting around it, we Americans have a sweet tooth. Most of us eat the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar a day. True, you're probably not sucking on sugar cubes throughout the day, but you are probably downing more than your fair share of sugary cereals, snacks, sodas, ice cream .. and the list goes on and on.

For the average person, there's nothing wrong with sugar per se, unless all the sweet foods in your daily diet are keeping you from eating and drinking the nutritious foods you need. But for people who are trying to lose weight, or have to watch their blood sugar because of diabetes, too much sugar can be a problem. That's where artificial sweeteners can come in handy. These low-calorie sweeteners, reports the International Food Information Council, are safe to use, provide sweetness without calories, and provide a choice of sweet foods.

A 1998 survey conducted by the Calorie Control Council reported that 144 million American adults routinely eat and drink low-calorie, sugar-free products such as desserts and artificially sweetened sodas. The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners:


  • Acesulfame potassium (Sunett)
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • D-Tagatose (Sugaree)
  • Saccharin (Sweet 'N Low)

You may be surprised to see saccharin on that list. Discovered in 1879, saccharin -- which is 300 times sweeter than sugar -- was used during World War I and World War II to make up for sugar shortages and rationing. In the 1970s, the FDA was going to ban saccharin based on the reports of a Canadian study that showed that saccharin was causing bladder cancer in rats. A public outcry kept saccharin on the shelves (there were no other sugar substitutes at that time), but with a warning label that read, "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals."

That warning label is no longer needed, says Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health. Further research has shown that male rats have a particular pH factor that predisposes them to bladder cancer. What may be true for male rats does not necessarily hold true for humans (or even for female rats) hence, no more warning labels for saccharin. "A lot of things that cause harm in animals don't always cause harm in humans," she says.


Like saccharin, aspartame is another sweetener that -- though thoroughly tested by the FDA and deemed safe for the general population -- has had its share of critics who blame the sweetener for causing everything from brain tumors to chronic fatigue syndrome. Not so, says Kava. The only people for whom aspartame is a medical problem are those with the genetic condition known as phenylkenoturia (PKU), a disorder of amino acid metabolism. Those with PKU need to keep the levels of phenylalanine in the blood low to prevent intellectual disability as well as neurological, behavioral, and dermatological problems. Since phenylalanine is one of the two amino acids in aspartame, people who suffer from PKU are advised not to use it.

Some people can be sensitive to sweeteners and experience symptoms such as headaches and upset stomach, but otherwise, there is no credible information that aspartame -- or any other artificial sweetener -- causes brain tumors, or any other illness, says registered dietitian Wendy Vida, with HealthPLACE, the health and wellness division of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pittsburgh.


Kava says that since sweeteners are so much sweeter than sugar, a very small amount is needed to achieve the same sweetness one gets from sugar. "If used normally, the amounts you take in are so minuscule as to be of no concern at all."

Another sweetener receiving much publicity of late is stevia, an herbal sweetening ingredient used in food and beverages by South American natives for many centuries and in Japan since the mid-1970s. According to Ray Sahelian, MD, author of The Stevia Cookbook, stevia has shown no significant side effects after more than 20 years of use in Japan. "There are no indications at this point from any source that stevia has shown toxicity in humans," says Sahelian, though he agrees that further research is warranted.

Because stevia is not FDA-approved, it can not be sold as an artificial sweetener however, it can be -- and is -- sold as a dietary supplement. Because these supplements are not regulated as well as those that have received FDA approval, and therefore have no guarantee of purity, Kava is leery about the use of stevia. "This is a product that's just asking for good research studies," she says. "We just don't know enough yet."


Though there are any number of people quick to point out what they believe are the dangers of artificial sweeteners, others think that they may actually have beneficial properties -- apart from reducing calorie intake and managing diabetes. Researchers at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, for example, have found in several preliminary studies that aspartame is "especially effective in relieving pain associated with osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis, and sickle cell anemia."

Whether artificial sweeteners are shown in the future to have therapeutic effects remains to be seen, says Kava. For now, though, their main purpose is to help people reduce caloric intake and/or control diabetes. If you don't need to watch your calories or your blood sugar, there is no real reason to use the sweeteners unless you just happen to like the taste, says Kava. "But if you need to control your sugar and caloric intake, artificial sweeteners are a safe, effective way to do that."


SOURCES: International Food Information Council Calorie Control Council FDA Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition, American Council on Science and Health Wendy Vida, RD, HealthPLACE, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, Pittsburgh Ray Sahelian, MD, author, The Stevia Cookbook Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.

Artificial Sweeteners Aren’t So Sweet

I am 15 years old and my divorced parents share custody of me so I go back and forth between homes. In my mom’s house, I am made to eat and drink foods that contain artificial sweeteners because she’s concerned about her weight. My dad thinks sugar-free foods that contain these chemicals are dangerous and we are never allowed to eat them. I am smart in biology and health, so I don’t know whether to believe my mom or my dad. But like my mom says, the government would never allow these artificial sweeteners in foods if they were bad for us. Right?” –N.R., Gainesville, Florida

Answer: I applaud your insight and many Americans wrestle with this very question. I side with your dad on this issue. Artificial sweeteners like saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda) or aspartame (NutraSweet) are lab-created chemicals that are food-additives they should not be considered “food.”

Some experts think that artificial sweeteners belong to a class of harmful chemicals called “excitotoxins” which can make brain cells fire like crazy, damaging or killing them. They can cause free radical damage in nerve cells. I wonder – if in time – we will find a connection between people who use excessive amounts of the pretty packets with those who experience conditions stemming from their head, for example, depression, panic attacks, seizures, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease and even manic depression.

I am particularly annoyed that many diabetes educators promote artificial sweeteners to people with diabetes, Why? Because some preliminary studies point to their detrimental effect on blood sugar and pancreatic function. Even more disturbing, a Duke University study has concluded these compounds may actually contribute to obesity, not weight loss!

The artificial sweetener story gets confusing because a few studies insist that human consumption is safe. So here is some research which explains why I shy away from non-natural sweeteners:

–A 2008 study published in Preventative Medicine concluded that “Regular use of artificial sweeteners for 10 years or more was positively associated with urinary tract tumors.”

–In January 2009, the trial began for McNeil-PPC, Inc. versus the sugar industry. Makers of Splenda have to defend themselves against claims that they used false advertising or deceptive marketing campaigns in order to convince Americans that Splenda is natural and safe because it comes from sugar. (It may start out that way, but the end product does not occur in nature, hence the trouble.)

–A 2008 Duke University study published in The Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health concluded that sucralose contributes to obesity, destroys your healthy camp of intestinal bacteria and may interfere with absorption of prescription drugs.

–A study by researchers at the University of Florida found that aspartame may increase the frequency of migraines by up to 50 percent.

–At higher temperatures, a compound in aspartame converts to formaldehyde and then to another chemical which could spark neurological symptoms that could be mistaken for multiple sclerosis.

Did You Know?
Stevia is a completely natural herbal sweetener sold at health food stores nationwide.

Artificial Sweeteners and Gut Health

One thing that has been more conclusively shown is that artificial sweeteners do indeed disrupt your microbiota which, as we learned earlier, has a snowball effect on many facets of your health. From your mental health to your digestive health, and everything in between, gut health is a significant piece of your overall health strategy.

Having a healthy balance of friendly bacteria is crucial to your hormonal health, as well, as the exchange of chemical messengers depends on a healthy internal environment. Essentially, almost every aspect of your body’s functioning depends on your gut health.

For this reason alone, it would be a good idea to skip the artificially lab-made sweeteners.

The other issue with artificial sweeteners is that people with other gut issues, such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), can have exacerbated effects after eating these sweeteners. If you’ve got gut conditions, avoiding artificial sweeteners is a good idea.

Flies model a potential sweet treatment for Parkinson's disease

Researchers from Tel Aviv University describe experiments that could lead to a new approach for treating Parkinson's disease (PD) using a common sweetener, mannitol.

This research is presented today at the Genetics Society of America's 54th Annual Drosophila Research Conference in Washington D.C., April 3-7, 2013.

Mannitol is a sugar alcohol familiar as a component of sugar-free gum and candies. Originally isolated from flowering ash, mannitol is believed to have been the "manna" that rained down from the heavens in biblical times. Fungi, bacteria, algae, and plants make mannitol, but the human body can't. For most commercial uses it is extracted from seaweed although chemists can synthesize it. And it can be used for more than just a sweetener.

The Food and Drug Administration approved mannitol as an intravenous diuretic to flush out excess fluid. It also enables drugs to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB), the tightly linked cells that form the walls of capillaries in the brain. The tight junctions holding together the cells of these tiniest blood vessels come slightly apart five minutes after an infusion of mannitol into the carotid artery, and they stay open for about 30 minutes.

Mannitol has another, less-explored talent: preventing a sticky protein called &alpha-synuclein from gumming up the substantia nigra part of the brains of people with PD and Lewy body dementia (LBD), which has similar symptoms to PD. In the disease state, the proteins first misfold, then form sheets that aggregate and then extend, forming gummy fibrils.

Certain biochemicals, called molecular chaperones, normally stabilize proteins and help them fold into their native three-dimensional forms, which are essential to their functions. Mannitol is a chemical chaperone. So like a delivery person who both opens the door and brings in the pizza, mannitol may be used to treat Parkinson's disease by getting into the brain and then restoring normal folding to &alpha-synuclein.

Daniel Segal, PhD, and colleagues at Tel Aviv University investigated the effects of mannitol on the brain by feeding it to fruit flies with a form of PD that has highly aggregated &alpha-synuclein.

The researchers used a "locomotion climbing assay" to study fly movement. Normal flies scamper right up the wall of a test tube, but flies whose brains are encumbered with &alpha-synuclein aggregates stay at the bottom, presumably because they can't move normally. The percentage of flies that climb one centimeter in 18 seconds assesses the effect of mannitol.

An experimental run tested flies daily for 27 days. After that time, 72% of normal flies climbed up, in comparison to 38% of the PD flies. Their lack of ascension up the sides of the test tube indicated "severe motor dysfunction."

In contrast, were flies bred to harbor the human mutant &alpha-synuclein gene, who as larvae feasted on mannitol that sweetened the medium at the bottoms of their vials. These flies fared much better -- 70% of them could climb after 27 days. And slices of their brains revealed a 70% decrease in accumulated misfolded protein compared to the brains of mutant flies raised on the regular medium lacking mannitol.

It's a long way from helping climbing-impaired flies to a new treatment for people, but the research suggests a possible novel therapeutic direction. Dr. Segal, however, cautioned that people with PD or similar movement disorders should not chew a ton of mannitol-sweetened gum or sweets that will not help their current condition. The next step for researchers is to demonstrate a rescue effect in mice, similar to improved climbing by flies, in which a rolling drum ("rotarod") activity assesses mobility.

"Until and if mannitol is proven to be efficient for PD on its own, the more conservative and possibly more immediate use can be the conventional one, using it as a BBB disruptor to facilitate entrance of other approved drugs that have problems passing through the BBB," Dr. Segal said. A preliminary clinical trial of mannitol on a small number of volunteers might follow if results in mice support those seen in the flies, he added, but that is still many research steps away.

The dangers of aspartame

Aspartame is one of the most common artificial sweeteners used today. It is widely consumed by people with diabetes and those who are trying to manage their weight because it is marketed to be a “low-calorie” sugar substitute. Despite its popularity, it has been extensively studied to be harmful to one’s health. The artificial sweetener, which is sold under the brand names Equal and NutraSweet, is associated with at least 90 adverse symptoms, such as depression, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, memory loss, and weight gain. (Related: Aspartame’s neurological side effects include blurred vision, headaches, seizures and more.)

Aspartame is commonly found in diet sodas, which are associated with an increased risk of various diseases. Research has found that diet sodas increase the risk of the following health problems:

New Study Finds Popular Drink Triples Your Risk Of Stroke & Dementia

What could be wrong with America’s most popular drink, the diet drink? Well, when it comes to artificial sweeteners, controversy isn’t new. In fact, many people once thought that artificial sweeteners, like the ones that sweeten diet sodas, were healthier. But according to a new study out of Boston University, drinking diet sodas on a regular basis nearly triples your risk of developing a stroke or dementia.

So why drink diet soda? Yes, artificial sweeteners do lower the carbohydrate and calorie content. But evidence continues to pile up that these sweeteners are not actually healthy. While the newest study shouldn’t exactly come as a shock, it continues to show just how dangerous artificial sweeteners can be.

Study Links Popular Drink to Stroke & Dementia

To conduct the study, researchers gathered data from approximately 3,000 adults. They then separated the participants into two different categories. In people older than 45 years old, researchers looked at stroke risk. In those older than 60, the researchers concentrated on dementia.

The study continued for a period of ten years. Over those ten years, researchers observed 97 cases of incident stroke, along with 81 cases of incident dementia. Of those cases, 63 were consistent with Alzheimer’s disease.

The results showed that drinking diet soda increased a person’s risk of developing stroke or dementia nearly three-fold.

Senior study author Sudha Seshadri, MD, explained, “These studies are not the be-all and end-all, but it’s strong data and a very strong suggestion. It looks like there is not very much of an upside to having sugary drinks, and substituting the sugar with artificial sweeteners doesn’t seem to help. Maybe good old-fashioned water is something we need to get used to.”

Another author of the study, Matthew Pase, published additional research in Alzheimer’s & Dementia. This study focused on people who consumed more than two sugary drinks per day or any type, and more than three sodas per day. Researchers discovered several signs of accelerated brain aging in the “high intake” group, correlating with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The study also showed that drinking at lease one diet soda each day was associated with smaller brain volume.

So what can you do? Create your own delicious drinks, and try some of these natural sweeteners instead.

Watch the video below for more information on the dangers of artificial sweeteners: