How CoQ10 Protects Brain Cells
Conclusion of a 3-part Series on Cellular Bioenergetics and CoQ10October 2001
Vasoconstriction and vasospasm
A new study on endothelins reveals some of the mechanisms through which CoQ10 may exert neuroprotective effects. Endothelins are potent vasoconstrictors found in the body. Ongoing research implicates them in a host of vascular disorders contributing to hypertension, atherosclerosis, congestive heart failure and kidney failure, and evidence is mounting of their involvement in stroke. When endothelins are injected into the brains of animals, the result is cellular energy decline, acidosis, excitotoxicity, depletion of cellular antioxidants, and eventually the collapse of brain cell metabolism. However, when CoQ10 was administered prior to injection of the endothelins, it protected the antioxidant defenses of brain cells and restored them to normal metabolic function. In particular, CoQ10 exerted a marked sparing effect on the key cellular antioxidants glutathione and superoxide dismutase (SOD), and normalized cellular energy production (ATP) and lactate levels (acidosis) in 24 hours.
Endothelins play a particularly important role in cerebral vasospasm. About 2% of adults have aneurysms, a balloon-like deformation in cerebral blood vessels. When an aneurysm ruptures, the two out of three patients who survive the initial cerebral hemorrhage face several possible complications. The most common serious complication is “second stroke,” the cerebral vasospasm. This is a prolonged narrowing of a blood vessel that causes ischemia in the downstream brain tissue.
Researchers at the Polish Academy of Sciences Medical Research Center tested the protective effect of CoQ10 in a rabbit model of cerebral vasospasm. They blocked arteries to reduce cerebral blood supply and later injected blood into the brain to simulate hemorrhage. Following the injection, one group of rabbits was given CoQ10 orally three times a day while the other group was left untreated. All of the untreated rabbits displayed significant neurological deficits (Grade 3 or 4) or died. None of the rabbits given CoQ10 displayed a noticeable neurological deficit, and all of them survived. Microscopic examination revealed no lesions in the brain tissue of the CoQ10 treated group, whereas multiple lesions “suggestive of degeneration or disappearance of neurons… and of myelin disintegration” were found in brain tissue from the untreated rabbits (Grieb P et al., 1997).
The underlying causes of cerebrovascular disease suggest that CoQ10 may have a preventive effect. Most cerebrovascular disease results from atherosclerosis or hypertension. Atherosclerosis narrows blood vessels in the brain, making it easier for blockages to develop; dislodged atherosclerotic plaque can itself cause blockages. Hypertension is the most common cause of hemorrhagic stroke. As discussed earlier in this series, CoQ10 helps protect against the oxidative damage that leads to atherosclerosis, and may aid in controlling blood pressure. Animal studies suggest that CoQ helps reverse age-related loss of arterial tone, which contributes to both cerebrovascular and cardiovascular disease. And of course CoQ10 plays a unique role in sustaining brain bioenergetics. While the potential of CoQ10 in stroke prevention and treatment appears promising, we can only hope that clinical trials will soon be undertaken to test this propositon.
Stroke may mimic long-term genetic effects of aging. Research in mice recently found that stroke causes some of the same mitochondrial DNA deletions associated with aging. The researchers speculate that there could be a single mechanism at work, however much further research is needed before stroke research can be meaningfully applied to brain aging.
The politics of CoQ10
If CoQ10 were as ubiquitous in American households as it is in the cells of the body, there is little doubt that public health would benefit. Why isn’t CoQ10 as popular here as in Japan, where it is one of the top half dozen prescription medicines? CoQ10 researcher Peter Langsjoen (1994) answered a similar question this way:
The answer to this question is found in the fields of politics and marketing and not in the fields of science or medicine. The controversy surrounding CoQ10 likewise is political and economic, as the previous 30 years of research on CoQ10 have been remarkably consistent and free of major controversy. Although it is not the first time that a fundamental and clinically important discovery has come about without the backing of a pharmaceutical company, it is the first such discovery to so radically alter how we as physicians must view disease. While the pharmaceutical industry does a good job at physician and patient education on their new products, the distributors of CoQ10 are not as effective at this. This education is very costly and can only be done with the reasonable expectation of patent protected profit.
Langsjoen’s point concerning education is well taken, inasmuch as CoQ10 cuts across conventional diagnostic and therapeutic categories. Systemic bioenergetic therapy is not yet on the horizon of conventional medicine.
nothing to gain by promoting or
testing this expensive import, for
which there is no domestic
The “Not Invented Here” syndrome may also play a part in making CoQ10 unwelcome to the American medical establishment. It was Japanese industry that developed the complex fermentation process used to grow natural CoQ10. To this day, all pharmaceutical grade CoQ10 comes from Japan. In the sixties and seventies, when mainstream medicine in the U.S. was yet more resistant to nutritional therapies than it is today, it was Japanese and European scientists who demonstrated the therapeutic effectiveness of CoQ10. Ironically, CoQ10 was invented here —American scientists discovered and first synthesized CoQ10 in the fifties.
What is most unpalatable of all to the U.S. pharmaceutical-medical establishment is that CoQ10 can neither be patented nor regulated as a drug. In fact, it is widely available as a nutritional supplement. U.S. pharmaceutical companies have nothing to gain by promoting or testing this expensive import, for which there is no domestic manufacturing infrastructure. It would cost billions of dollars to conduct the massive clinical trials that drugs undergo in all the potential areas of CoQ10 application. When the medical establishment does embrace CoQ10 it may be in the form of a patentable synthetic analogue (such as idebedone).
In this series of articles we have explored fundamental life processes—cellular bioenergetics, antioxidant defense, mitochondrial genetics—intertwined with mechanisms of aging and degeneration. It will take many years before these biomedical research frontiers revolutionize the practice of conventional medicine. A common theme running through our exploration has been CoQ10’s unique point of leverage on these life processes. Insofar as health—and aging—begins in the cell, CoQ10 may be a cornerstone of vitality and longevity.