The 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society held this week in Boston was the site of a presentation by Shibu Poulose, PhD, of the US Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, of new findings for berries in protecting aging brains.
A reduction in the ability to protect oneself from inflammation and oxidative damage can result in degenerative brain diseases, as well as heart disease and other disorders, notes Dr Poulose. In previous research conducted by Dr Poulose and laboratory director James Joseph, PhD, aged rats given diets that contained 2 percent strawberry, blueberry or blackberry extract for two months experienced a reversal in the age-associated decline in nerve function and behavior that results in impairment of memory and learning. "The good news is that natural compounds called polyphenolics found in fruits, vegetables and nuts have an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect that may protect against age-associated decline," Dr Poulose remarked.
For the current research, the duo studied the brain's natural "house-cleaning" process, which involves autophagy by cells known as microglia. These cells remove and recycle toxic proteins that can interfere with brain function. "In aging, microglia fail to do their work, and debris builds up," Dr Poulose explained. "In addition, the microglia become over-activated and actually begin to damage healthy cells in the brain."
In experiments with cultured mouse cells, Dr Poulose found that blueberry and strawberry extracts inhibited a protein that interferes with autophagy. "The results strongly suggest that the benefits of both berries extend beyond the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects to cellular toxic clearance through induction of autophagy in brain," concludes a written summary of the findings.
Dr Poulose commented that the study adds evidence to the benefits of consuming polyphenolic-rich foods, including berries and walnuts. "Our research suggests that the polyphenolics in berries have a rescuing effect," he stated. "They seem to restore the normal housekeeping function. These findings are the first to show these effects of berries."
Researchers have discovered multiple factors that influence our ability to think and remember as we age. These include well-known culprits such as alcohol abuse, and also newly discovered causes of mental decline, including chronic inflammation, vascular diseases, and even stress.
Physical changes that occur in the aging brain are also implicated in mild cognitive impairment. For example, the number of nerve impulses and nerve cells decreases with age (Beers MH et al 1999).
The theory linking inflammation to cognitive decline is relatively new, but it appears to be consistent with our increasing understanding of the damage of chronic inflammation (as measured by C-reactive protein or interleukin-6 levels). Various studies have examined the association between inflammation and mild cognitive impairment and found compelling evidence. For example, one study of 2632 participants (mean age: 74 years) found that people who had both metabolic syndrome and high inflammation levels were more likely to experience cognitive impairment than were patients who suffered from neither.
Numerous studies have shown that fruit extracts, which are rich in polyphenols, have the ability to reverse and slow age-related brain deterioration. Among these, blueberry extract seems especially effective. One study of rats with beta-amyloid plaques showed that blueberry extract helped improve their performance in a maze, leading the authors to state, “Our data indicate for the first time that it may be possible to overcome genetic predispositions to Alzheimer disease through diet” (Joseph JA et al 2003). An earlier study by the same research team looked at blueberry extract’s ability to suppress oxidative stress in the brain, which is linked to numerous age-related cognitive problems. The study found that blueberry extracts in particular were powerful neural antioxidants (Joseph JA et al 2000). These findings have been supported in more recent studies examining blueberries’ role as antioxidants (Lau FC et al 2005; Andres-Laceuva C et al 2005).
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