Part of the reason for this protection is, of course, the fact that lipoic acid - especially when at the height of its powers as DHLA - effectively neutralizes free radicals. But there's more tolipoic acid's antioxidant protection than simply attacking free radicals as they come along, the way children stomp on ants coming out of an ant hill. Lipoic acid also provides a kind of proactive defense against some of the worst kinds of free radicals by binding up unbound "transition metals" such as copper, iron, and cadmium.
Transition metals are not free radicals themselves, but when they're put in contact with hydrogen peroxide (a relatively harmless free-radical-like substance), they can tear the molecule apart, forming two molecules of the toxic hydroxyl radical (a process known as the Fenton reaction). By keeping transition metals safely bound away, lipoic acid prevents Fenton reactions from happening, and thereby keeps some of the nastiest kinds of free radicals from materializing in the first place.
Aside from the general role of transition metals in free radical damage, there's a significant amount of evidence to suggest that an excess of transition metals in various areas of the brain is a central factor in many neurological disorders. 47 For instance, people with Parkinson's disease have high levels of iron in exactly those cells of the brain which are affected by the disease (the substantia nigra); 48 likewise, scientists have found high concentrations of iron in disease-specific parts of the brains of victims of Huntington's disease 49 and Friedreich ataxia 50 There are similar stories to be told with copper in primary dystonia (a genetic disorder which causes involuntary muscle contractions, leading to "freezing," spasming, or cramping of the muscles involved) 51 and Alzheimer's disease.
As mentioned above, lipoic acid chelates transition metals, binding them tightly and preventing them from going on a "Fenton frenzy." More specifically, R(+)-Lipoic Acid is superior to the S(-)- in controlling the acceleration of free radical damage by copper 54 Likewise, lipoic acid can protect cells from the toxic heavy transition metal cadmium through chelation, but it only becomes effective when charged up into its DHLA form; 55 since the body makes DHLA from R(+)-Lipoic Acid much more quickly than happens with the S(-)-form, 37 , 39 that should mean that R(+)-Lipoic Acid gives stronger protection against cadmium toxicity than the S(-)-form.
And what about iron? The ability of the racemate to tie up iron is well-established,30 although unfortunately no studies that we know of have compared the iron-chelating protection provided by the racemate with the powers of R(+)-lipoic acid. But there's only been one study to see if lipoic acid might be able to protect the brain of a living, breathing organism against damage from excessive iron buildup - and that study used R(+)-lipoic acid. 56
In this study, 56 scientists looked at the levels of iron in the brains of young, middle-aged, late-middle aged, and old lab animals. Not surprisingly, the older the animal, the more iron it had in its brain, though how much more depended on what part of the brain the researchers looked at. When they looked at levels of vitamin C in these areas, the scientists consistently found that the more iron was present in a given part of the brain at a given age, the lower was the level of vitamin C - suggesting that the presence of iron was depleting the brain of its antioxidant defense forces.
Remarkably, at the end of an experiment that lasted just two weeks, the forebrains of old animals which were given R(+)-Lipoic Acid in their food were found to have 60% less iron buildup, and to have undergone a "substantial restoration" of antioxidant defenses (as measured by vitamin C levels), as compared to unsupplemented animals in the same age group. No significant differences were seen in other brain areas; however, one wonders if a mere two weeks may simply not have been enough time to mobilize the iron accumulation from structures located deeper within the brain. Either way, this study - combined with the other known neuroprotective effects of lipoic acid (and especially the R(+)-form) - suggests that R(+)-Lipoic Acid shows promise in the prevention (and, perhaps, even the treatment) of several devastating neurological diseases.
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