Acai is native to Brazil, where some traditional healers use the berries to treat malaria symptoms. In recent years, the high antioxidant content of the grape-like fruit has boosted its popularity outside of Brazil and has caused some to consider it a “superfood.”
This antioxidant activity arises mainly from polyphenols — compounds that have been linked to health benefits such as weight loss, cardiovascular disease prevention and decreased cancer risk.
Susanne Mertens-Talcott, Fabio Costa and colleagues wanted to determine if aҫaí extracts could treat malaria in mice, and if so, whether polyphenols in the berries were responsible for the therapeutic effect.
The team extracted polyphenols from aҫaí berries and then treated malaria parasite cultures growing in a Petri dish with the extracts. They found that a class of polyphenols called nonanthocyanin phenolics inhibited the growth of both chloroquine-resistant and -sensitive parasites. Then, the researchers orally administered acai polyphenols to malaria-infected mice.
The treatment reduced the parasitic load in the mice’s blood by 89.4% compared with untreated mice. All of the mice given polyphenols survived for more than 15 days, whereas none of the untreated mice lived. The acai extracts appeared to interfere with the parasites’ protein homeostasis, or the balance between protein production and degradation, the researchers say.