Michigan’s tart cherries could unlock a key to improving brain function and reducing symptoms of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, according to studies by a neuroscientist at Central Michigan University.
Earlier studies have suggested antioxidants found in tart cherries can be useful in treating inflammation-related ailments such as arthritis, and new studies of their effects on degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s are breaking new ground.
Michigan is a world leader in the production of tart cherries, producing up to 75% of the U.S. crop, with orchards concentrated in the Traverse City area.
Gary Dunbar, director of CMU’s neuroscience program, said the compound built around extracts from tart cherries improved brain function in mice with Alzheimer’s symptoms and reduced symptoms of Huntington’s disease in other lab animals. He published the results of some of his research in the Journal of Medicinal Food in 2012.
Still, such studies are controversial because cherries are natural products unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and can be consumed without the rigorous testing required of pharmaceuticals. Some medical experts say nearly all such dietary supplements are shown to be ineffective when subjected to placebo-controlled testing on humans.
Dunbar conducted the studies at the urging of Traverse City cherry entrepreneur Ray Pleva.
Pleva, who grew up on his father’s cherry orchard in Cedar, near Traverse City, developed the natural supplement used for the studies and supplied the compound at no charge.
“Was it a startling response? Did it cure them? No,” said Dunbar, who conducts a wide range of stem cell and other research related to neurodegenerative diseases and spinal cord injuries. “Did it slow down the disease process? Yes. Is that important? Well, if I had Huntington’s disease and it gave me — I don’t care if it was one more day of symptom-free living — thank goodness.”
Dunbar, who has a doctorate in psychobiology from Clark University in Massachusetts, is frank about the limitations of the studies he conducted with Pleva’s dietary supplement, marketed under the name Cerise.
But the results are a big deal for Pleva, who has scores of testimonials to the therapeutic benefits of Michigan cherries and appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 1995.
Dunbar’s Alzheimer’s study with lab animals was paid for by the Field Neurosciences Institute in Saginaw and by a CMU endowment.
Pleva, founder and chairman of Pleva International, said he believes Dunbar’s student-based research with rats and mice, though preliminary, is an important step in supporting through science what he has heard anecdotally for years.
He said his supplements, which contain a concentrated powder from tart cherries, Nordic fish oil and emu oil, have strong anti-inflammatory properties and have helped people with arthritis, high cholesterol, headaches and Crohn’s disease, among other ailments.
An animal study conducted by a colleague of Dunbar found Cerise — which is not regulated by the FDA — helpful in relieving symptoms in rodent models of Parkinson’s disease. None of the studies showed any harmful side effects, Dunbar said.
Skepticism and hope