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What has caused the rise of neurodegeneration and what can we do?

  • Dr. Amparo Aracil
    Dr. Amparo Aracil

    Amparo is a medical herbalist and doctor interested in community herbalism and acute medicine. Amparo combines their work as a herbalist with working as a doctor, previously for the NHS and now in both primary care and A&E in Spain. Amparo has also worked with Herbalists Without Borders Calais providing first aid and herbal medicine to migrants and refugees. Having a special interest in psychoneuroimmunology and auto-immune conditions, they have extensive clinical experience helping people with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disorders.

    Amparo has been involved with writing lectures and teaching clinical skills for Heartwood students, and runs student clinics on a monthly basis.

    Amparo is a registered member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and the General Medical Council. You can find more about them at their website.

  • 14:33 reading time (ish)
  • Ageing Western Herbal Medicine

This article explores factors contributing to the development of neurodegenerative disease and lifestyle and herbal approaches to mitigate risk and limit progression.

What has caused the rise of neurodegeneration and what can we do

Neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Huntington’s disease, spinal muscular atrophy and spinocerebellar ataxia are associated with progressive loss of neuronal functions (1). The prevalence of these conditions has been on the rise worldwide (2, 3). The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that soon neurodegenerative conditions will overtake cancer to become the second leading cause of death, after cardiovascular disease (4).

One of the primary drivers of the rise in neurodegenerative diseases is the ageing population. As life expectancy increases globally, the prevalence of age-related conditions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, rises accordingly. Epidemiological data consistently show a strong correlation between age and the risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders (5, 6).

Several lifestyle factors have been linked to an increased risk of neurodegeneration. These include sedentary behaviour, poor diet, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption and (7). Studies have highlighted the importance of adopting healthy lifestyle choices in reducing the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases (7, 8, 9). 

While ageing and lifestyle factors contribute significantly to the rise in neurodegeneration, genetic predisposition also plays a crucial role (6). Epidemiological studies have identified several genetic variants associated with an elevated risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurodegenerative disorders. However, it’s essential to recognise that genetic predisposition alone does not determine disease onset, and interactions with environmental factors are often involved (6, 7). 

Exposure to heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and aluminium, has been implicated in the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases (10). These metals can accumulate in the brain over time, leading to oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and neuronal damage (10).

Exposure to heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, can significantly contribute to the pathogenesis of neurodegeneration (11). Heavy metals can generate reactive oxygen species (ROS) through Fenton-like reactions. ROS cause oxidative damage to cellular components like proteins, lipids, and DNA. This oxidative stress can lead to neuronal injury and cell death, contributing to neurodegeneration (7, 12).

Heavy metals can also trigger inflammatory responses in the brain by activating microglia, the resident immune cells of the central nervous system. Chronic inflammation can lead to neuronal damage and contribute to the progression of neurodegenerative diseases. Some heavy metals can disrupt the blood brain barrier (BBB), allowing toxic substances to enter the brain more easily. Once inside, these substances can induce neuronal damage and contribute to neurodegeneration (13). 

Heavy metals can impair mitochondrial function, which is crucial for energy production and maintaining cellular homeostasis. Mitochondrial dysfunction leads to energy depletion and an increase in ROS production, further exacerbating oxidative stress and neuronal damage (14). Certain heavy metals have been shown to promote the aggregation of proteins such as amyloid-beta and tau, which are characteristic features of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders (15). Protein aggregation disrupts cellular function and can lead to neuronal dysfunction and death.

Moreover, heavy metals can interfere with neurotransmitter systems, such as dopamine, glutamate, and GABA, disrupting neuronal communication and leading to neurodegenerative changes (16).

Epidemiological studies have demonstrated a correlation between lead exposure and cognitive decline in both children and adults (17, 18). Even low levels of lead exposure have been associated with an increased risk of neurodegenerative disorders later in life. Mechanistically, lead interferes with neurotransmitter function, disrupts calcium homeostasis, and promotes the generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), contributing to neuronal dysfunction and death.

Mercury exposure, primarily through contaminated seafood or dental amalgams, has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (19, 20). Epidemiological evidence suggests that chronic exposure to mercury can impair neuronal function, disrupt mitochondrial activity, and induce neuroinflammation (21). Additionally, mercury has been shown to facilitate the aggregation of amyloid-beta and tau proteins, characteristic features of Alzheimer’s pathology.

Although the role of aluminium in neurodegeneration remains controversial, epidemiological studies have indicated a potential link between aluminium exposure and cognitive impairment (22). Aluminium can accumulate in the brain, particularly in regions affected by Alzheimer’s disease pathology. It exerts neurotoxic effects by promoting oxidative stress, disrupting neurotransmitter balance, and facilitating the formation of amyloid plaques (22).

Emerging evidence suggests that chronic exposure to organophosphates may contribute to the development of neurodegenerative conditions. Organophosphates are a class of chemicals commonly used as pesticides, insecticides, and nerve agents (23).

Epidemiological studies have identified an association between pesticide exposure, particularly organophosphates, and an increased risk of neurodegenerative disorders (23, 24). Agricultural workers and individuals living in proximity to pesticide-treated areas are at higher risk (25). Organophosphates inhibit acetylcholinesterase, leading to the accumulation of acetylcholine and overstimulation of cholinergic pathways in the brain, which can result in neurotoxicity (24).

Organophosphates can also induce oxidative stress and neuroinflammation, contributing to neuronal damage and dysfunction. These chemicals generate ROS and disrupt antioxidant defence mechanisms, leading to cellular damage and mitochondrial dysfunction (25). As mentioned before, chronic inflammation can exacerbate neurodegeneration by activating microglia and promoting the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines.

It is important to remember that the consequences of neurodegeneration extend beyond individual health outcomes, and can also impact healthcare systems, economies, and society as a whole. Neurodegenerative conditions impose a substantial burden on healthcare systems worldwide, as people suffering with neurodegenerative conditions generally need extensive medical care, long-term support, and specialised services (26).

Dr. Amparo Aracil

Amparo is a medical herbalist and doctor interested in community herbalism and acute medicine. Amparo combines their work as a herbalist with working as a doctor, previously for the NHS and now in... Read more

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