Grant Helps Student, Professor Study Link Between Red Wine and Aging

Studies indicate coffee is good for cognitive abilities. So is green tea, dark chocolate, and red wine.

A Nebraska Wesleyan University psychology professor and her student are spending their summer researching the effects of red wine — or more specifically, a compound found in red grapes —on cognitive skills.

“It’s always assumed that memory gets worse as we get older,” said Marilyn Petro, professor of psychology. “Does this have to be the case?”

Petro first became interested in the relationship between red wine and memory after reading studies that showed the French were able to consume large amounts of butter, cheese, and meats high in fat and yet had lower rates of heart disease. Research revealed that red wine could be a key factor due to the compound resveratrol and its anti-inflammatory effect.

“So people started taking larger doses and as a psychologist I had to ask, what is it doing to the brain and behavior,” said Petro.

While the verdict is still out on the role red wine consumption plays on learning and memory, Petro and her student, senior Ben Siemsen, are hoping their findings will help provide more definitive answers about the role resveratrol plays in controlling the increased inflammation observed in the aging brain.

This summer Petro and Siemsen were awarded a grant for their research by Nebraska’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). They were one of four Nebraska schools funded by the grant and the only psychology program in the state.

Petro and seven students, including Siemsen, fed middle-age mice different diets: some received diets enhanced with resveratrol only, some received doses of ethanol with regular diets, some received both resveratrol and ethanol, and some received water and their regular diet.

After six weeks on these diets, the mice were put in a maze to see if they could solve cued and spatial memory problems. While results pointed to the mice with doses of ethanol having the better memory for cued problems and those receiving both ethanol and resveratrol doing better on the spatial problems, none of the tests gave clear answers.

“Perhaps the pattern means resveratrol has more of an impact biologically and not psychologically,” said Siemsen.

Petro and Siemsen are using the grant money to determine if age-related inflammation in the brain leads to deficits in spatial learning. They are examining the levels of a brain protein related to learning and pro-inflammatory molecules in the brain tissue of the treated mice. They are hoping to further determine if the plant compound, resveratrol, could be a means to control inflammation in the brain and prevent age-related memory declines.

“This study can lead to more research, and good data could lead to more studies looking at other genes,” said Petro.

Findings could not only benefit Alzheimer’s research but other cognitive disorders that come with aging.

For Siemsen, his summer research is an opportunity to blend his two passions: psychology and biology. He will present his findings at two scientific conferences this year.

“I’m learning so much about research,” said Siemsen who plans to continue his education in neuroscience following his graduation from NWU next May. “I’m just thankful to have this opportunity.”