A VA pilot study finds that Concord grape juice contains ingredients that may have the potential to improve cognitive performance in Veterans with Gulf War illness.

The results appeared in the journal “Life Sciences” in July 2021.

Concord grape juice contains high concentrations of polyphenols, molecules that have an antioxidant effect in the body. Studies have shown that some polyphenols in grape juice are able to cross the blood-brain barrier, potentially having a direct benefit in the brain. At least one small 2010 study suggested that polyphenols may help people with mild cognitive impairment, which is a sign of early memory loss or other cognitive disabilities and can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, one of the most common forms of dementia.

Dr. Drew Helmer, an internist at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, co-authored the 2021 paper. He and his colleagues first identified whether drinking Concord grape juice is linked to increased levels of polyphenols in the blood. They then tried to learn whether these increases correlate with improved cognitive performance in 26 Veterans with Gulf War illness.

Original predictions supported by the research

The researchers identified 76 metabolites in the blood samples of the participants. They found three of the metabolites to be much higher in the Concord grape juice group of 14 Veterans, compared with placebo, at 24 weeks. They also observed strong links between changes in cognitive function and changes in serum levels of two types of metabolites from baseline to 24 weeks.

“Our data suggest that dietary supplementation with Concord grape juice is associated with increased bioavailability of specific phenolic metabolites, some of which may be correlated with cognitive performance,” the researchers write.

Before embarking on the study, Helmer and his team hypothesized that Concord grape juice, when administered at the highest studied dosage of 16 ounces per day, would increase blood levels of the polyphenols.

“It was reassuring to see that our predictions, our ‘educated guesses,’ were supported by the research,” says Helmer, who is also a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Clinical trials are challenging and take a long time. You want to be pretty certain that you’re on the right track before you commit to a larger study. These projects take three to four years and cost at least $1 million.”

Concord grape juice gaining interest in medical community

Gulf War illness is a cluster of medically unexplained chronic symptoms that have plagued about a third of the nearly 700,000 service members who deployed to the Persian Gulf region in the early 1990s. The symptoms can include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, bowel discomfort, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders, skin problems and memory impairment. VA researchers have conducted many studies to better understand Gulf War illness, for which there are no proven treatments.

Concord grape juice has gained interest in the medical community as a therapy due to its high concentration of polyphenols and the benefits associated with its consumption, including reduced inflammation and improved cardiovascular health.

Other types of grape juice may have similar benefits. But Concord grape juice, Helmer notes, offers a more concentrated form of polyphenols.

“There are more grapes in a glass of juice than one might care to eat as whole grapes,” he says. “There are other, more concentrated forms of grapes, but the creation of these involves additional processing, which can destroy the beneficial activity of the polyphenols. Additional evaluation would be required to ensure that other concentrated forms of grapes retain the beneficial polyphenols.”

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By Mike Richman is the Managing Editor of VA Research Communications

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Published on Dec. 10, 2021

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