Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

Features Fruit Production
Berries can help the brain


March 27, 2009
By Hugh McElhone

Topics

Research shows that fruits and vegetables rich in colour have
anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may lower the risk of
developing ailments, such as Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease.

berries_brain 
Recent studies suggest that adding berries to the diet may improve people’s motor and cognitive ability and help them to lead healthier and more active lives.


 

Research shows that fruits and vegetables rich in colour have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may lower the risk of developing ailments, such as Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease. Recent studies also suggest that adding berries to the diet may improve people’s motor and cognitive ability by lowering oxidative stress and improving communication between neurons.

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This work is important because never in Earth’s history has the planet had so many people 65 years of age and over, says Dr. James Joseph, a brain researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Boston.

“We’re living longer,” he says, and as a result, the incidence of age-related disease and various forms of cancer are on the rise.

Dr. Joseph, who spoke recently to fruit producers in Michigan, says the human body experiences and counteracts oxidative stress every day. He explains that aging occurs when these stressors are no longer counteracted by natural function. The human brain is the only part of the body that does not resist oxidative stress.

For the average person, the brain uses only 20 per cent of the body’s oxygen, Dr. Joseph says, adding for athletes, farmers, and others who use physical and mental skills simultaneously during the course of the day, this increases to 50 per cent.

When people are younger, the brain sends and receives messages throughout the body at lightening speed, he explains. But as people age, and oxidative stress accumulates, memory starts to flag and message transmission slows. “The brain eventually goes from the latest high tech machine with super fast Internet, to a stand-alone computer,” he said.

Reading through a list of colourful fruits and vegetables that help in the fight against disease, Dr. Joseph notes many contain flavonoids and polyphenols that occur naturally in such fruits as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, cherries and currants.

“Some of the top 20 anti-oxidants are red … (and) we know cherries are good for arthritis,” he says, adding, “We eat too much brown,” eluding to the North American diet of fast food French fries and greasy burgers. This is why alarming rates of Type 3 diabetes occur as people get older, he says. “Fruits and vegetables fight aging, so let’s eat them.”

In recent research with rats, one test group was fed a blueberry, strawberry and blackberry supplement, while the control group received a regular diet. At the end of eight weeks, both groups were put through a series of motor function tests. They found the group fed the berry supplement performed significantly better than the control group.

Dr. Joseph attributes the performance to improved lipids, which he explains are a key part of motor function. “They make one neuron talk to another but they become rigid with age. Berries seem to work on these nerves,” he adds, and somehow keep them talking.

Similar results were found for rats put on a diet of regular feed that also contained two per cent blueberries. Running the experiment for eight months this time, the group nibbling the blueberries again outperformed the control group. The control group was then put on the blueberry regime and their performance also improved.

In this case, researchers found the dendritic spines had increased significantly. Dr. Joseph says these spines look like large spider webs under the microscope and they function as an elaborate communication network between nerve cells.

In a study involving human subjects, researchers tested the verbal skills of a group of seniors before giving them regular drinks of Welch’s Concord grape juice. Dr. Joseph explained that all participants were suffering mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which generally occurs before the onset of Alzheimer disease.

When the testing time frame had elapsed, the participants repeated the verbal skills test. “We found a huge improvement in their verbal testing,” says Dr. Joseph. “We repeated the study with blueberry juice too, and while significant, it wasn’t as strong a response.”

Berry consumption also helps with radiation effects, as NASA researchers discovered early on, says Dr. Joseph. Rats exposed to radiation, then fed a diet containing two per cent berries, lived longer than the control group and had better cognitive and motor function. For astronauts, who are exposed to radiation while in space, a diet rich in berries has helped lessened the sickness often associated with radiation exposure, he says.

Berry consumption appears to help the body scavenge and remove free radicals, and stop the neural sensors from creating COX-2, the enzyme responsible for inflammation, says Dr. Joseph. This enzyme results, and accumulates, when the body is unable to counteract oxidative stress, and is linked to arthritis and some forms of cancer.

“There are three things we need to do to protect our brain and our heart – eat right, exercise your body, and exercise your brain,” recommends Dr. Joseph.

He also suggests that when buying groceries, not to buy anything in a box or a bag, unless it is frozen fruit or vegetables. Also read product labels so you are aware of what it going into your body.

“Start your kids on this routine too,” he urges. “Start them early, and train them well.” ❦