Scientists explore rooibos’ potential to protect against Alzheimer’s disease

Dr Taskeen Fathima Docrat aims to unravel the biological mechanisms that are involved in brain health to gain a clearer understanding of how and to what extent rooibos can prevent AD.

Dr Taskeen Fathima Docrat aims to unravel the biological mechanisms that are involved in brain health to gain a clearer understanding of how and to what extent rooibos can prevent AD.

Published Sep 6, 2023


Preliminary studies with rooibos extracts have shown that the tisane may be able to reduce the risk and onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD), with the research foundation now being laid for potentially developing supplements that could act as preventatives.

While no cure for AD currently exists, the South African Rooibos Council has highlighted research efforts and strides being made by prominent local scientists who have been studying rooibos and brain health for several years to raise awareness and discussion around the disease this World Alzheimer’s Month.

AD is a progressive illness that destroys memory and other important mental functions and affects an estimated 55 million people worldwide.

Novel research being done by Dr Taskeen Fathima Docrat, a scientist based at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), aims to unravel the intricate biological mechanisms that are involved in brain health to gain a clearer understanding of how and to what extent rooibos can prevent AD.

“We’ve delved explicitly into the intricate world of epigenetics, which is the study of how our behaviours and the environment can change the way our genes work without altering the underlying DNA sequence.

“Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and can change how your body reads a DNA sequence,” said Docrat.

She explained that mitochondria are known as the powerhouse of a cell because they are responsible for generating energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

“Sometimes mitochondria don’t work as well as they should due to another disease or condition in the cell. This is called mitochondrial dysfunction.

“Many conditions can lead to secondary mitochondrial dysfunction, including AD, muscular dystrophy and Type 1 diabetes.

“We’ve been particularly interested in understanding how rooibos could influence oxidative stress-related biomarkers, and gene and microRNA regulation related to mitochondrial dysfunction in AD.

“This line of research takes a holistic approach by examining multiple factors and their interactions.

“We are comparing the effects of fermented (red) and unfermented (green) rooibos to help us understand the potential benefits of different rooibos types comprehensively.

“Comparing the effects of different rooibos types not only contributes to a more nuanced understanding of their potential impacts in protecting against Alzheimer’s, but also provides insights into how variations in processing might influence their bioactive properties.

“Although we are still busy with these studies, preliminary findings look promising, suggesting that rooibos could positively impact these factors.”

She said the insights they were gathering would guide the design of future human clinical trials to explore rooibos’s effects in real-world scenarios.

Stellenbosch University researcher and professor of molecular physiology Ben Loos has done extensive research in the last 12 years on AD and neuronal ageing, malignant brain tumours, as well as neuronal injury and trauma.

His research has focused specifically on autophagy activity, which is an intracellular degradation process that allows cells to recycle damaged components to generate energy and provide building blocks to create new cellular structures.

In gist, autophagy acts as a housekeeping mechanism to ensure that damaged parts of the cell are rapidly digested (eaten) and cleared from the cell.

He said: “We all age differently. Some age poorly – usually associated with poor lifestyle choices, while others age healthily. So, we started to look at the molecular hallmarks of ageing, which include mitochondrial dysfunction, oxidative damage and the accumulation of toxic protein aggregates. In doing so, we came across the potential health benefits of rooibos and were curious about how it would impact these markers. If it acted on some of those parameters positively, we thought, it could likely reduce the risk of neurodegeneration.

“Our current research assesses the effect of rooibos extract on damaged/diseased mitochondria, mimicking AD, which has shown that when we treat neurons with the extract, mitochondrial volume increases. This indicates that rooibos is indeed acting on a very important part that controls cell energetics and cell health. Preliminary data also shows that the rooibos extract preserves cell membrane integrity.”

Once Loos and his team have completed their current study, they will turn their focus to how effective rooibos impacts the process of “rubbish removal” in the neuron (autophagy).

The Rooibos Council said both Docrat’s and Loos’s research approaches offered multifaceted insights into the potential benefits of rooibos against Alzheimer’s, covering cellular and molecular aspects.

Cape Times