"These preliminary memory findings are encouraging and suggest that consistent supplementation with blueberries may offer an approach to forestall or mitigate neurodegeneration."
-Robert Krikorian, PhD, University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center, lead author of "Blueberry Supplementation Improves Memory in Older Adults" J Agric Food Chem 2010.
"We now know that exercise activity in animals generate and sustain more brain cells, and we have many studies confirming that humans who lead mentally active lives have better brain function. But, not all activities are equal in this regard. Those that involve genuine concentration--challenging mental activities will increase the likelihood that hippocampal neurons will survive."
-Dr. Norman Doidge, "The Brain That Changes Itself. Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science"
Back in August I wrote a post about the many virtues of blueberries, and discussed Dr. Robert Krikorian's promising "not-yet-published" study on the positive effects of blueberry juice on memory. Click here
- Berry protection for the brain in animal studies. Rats who feasted on blueberries and strawberries were able to protect their brains when they were irradiated to simulate the kind of cognitive & memory damage the brain sustains through normal aging. The interesting point: the blueberries and strawberries actually protected different parts of the brain--so diversify your berry munching.
- Blueberries & humans. Once more, Dr. Robert Krikorian is the man doing the research on people. He has recently shown that a number of learning and memory skills improve when humans supplement with blueberry juice. He's planning to also assess the effects of blueberries on behavioral skills.
In January 2010, Robert Krikorian's blueberry and memory study was published online ahead-of-print and I just had a chance to read through it yesterday. You'll find it in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry DOI:10/1021/jf9029332
Why it's a big deal? It is the first human trial to look at the effects of blueberry supplementation on memory.
Who was in the study? This was a small study--it compared nine older adults against a control group of seven, whose average age was 76, and who had age-related memory decline, like forgetfulness and memory lapses, that put them at risk for dementia.
What kind of blueberry supplement did they take & for how long? For 12 weeks the trial group drank from 2 to 2 1/2 cups of wild blueberry juice--the amount was based on their body weight. During the test period everyone had to avoid any additional berries, cherries, grapes, pomegranates, grape juice, or wine to make sure that only blueberry juice was affecting the results.
How were their memories tested? All the participants took pre and post tests that measured their memory function--the Verbal Paired Associate Learning Test (V-PAL) and the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT). Both tests are good measures of progressive neurodegeneration and are sensitive to both age-related memory changes, as well as early and more advanced Alzheimer's disease.
So, how did the blueberry juice folks do compared to the fake blueberry juice folks? Turns out that the blueberry juice definitely improved their memories. There was significant improvement in the post test of the blueberry juice drinkers, and at the end of the 12-weeks, the blueberry juice group tested significantly better against the placebo group. After 12 weeks the blueberry group's V-PAL cumulative learning test scores went from 9.3 points to 13.2 points. The scores on their CVLT word list recall improved from 7.2 points to 9.6 points.
Memory wasn't the only thing that improved with the blueberry juice. The researchers also did pre and post tests on depression and fasting glucose levels. After 12 weeks the blueberry juice drinkers had notable reductions in their depression symptom scores, and their fasting glucose levels were reduced.
Both of these changes further support the neurocognitive benefit of blueberry juice. It turns out that the anthocyanins (the polyphenols in blueberries) are not only anti-inflammatory, but they help to "get rid of" excess glucose, which is known to damage the brain--and just might be one of the reasons that blueberries help to improve memory.
How do blueberries benefit the brain? They contain polyphenolic compounds, most prominently anthocyanins, that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Anthocyanins are known to increase the signaling between neurons in the brain, improve memory function and slow down neurodegeneration.
What happens next? This was just a first step. It's a small study, but the results were encouraging and suggest that consistent supplementation with blueberries may offer an approach to prevent or slow down neurodegeneration. As every researcher says at the end of their articles--"Replication of the findings in a larger, controlled trial will be important to corroborate and amplify these data." Stay tuned.
What am I going to do? When I was at Trader Joe's on Sunday, instead of picking up my usual pomegranate juice for my green smoothies, I decided to try a bottle of their Just Blueberry Unfiltered 100% Juice. It's not made from wild blueberries, but what the heck. I think I may also start throwing in some of the Wyler's Frozen Wild Blueberries into my smoothies as well--alternating with TJ's Frozen Black Raspberries. A memory is a terrible thing to lose!
Brain Plasticity in Older Adults. Why We Need to Continue to Learn New Things
One of the perks of my job is that I get to see what all the top researchers are reading. A few weeks back one particularly interesting book crossed my desk, "The Brain That Changes Itself. Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science," by Dr. Norman Doidge. The book is about neuroplasticity-- how our brains are not static, but can change and improve, even as we age. Much of this research is credited to Dr. Michael Merzenich who has pioneered computer-learning activities for children, and has recently developed memory-training programs for adults. Click here to learn more.
Writing this blog has given me a chance to take time out to study, learn, and concentrate on new areas of research--and to understand it well enough to be able to write about it. Without undergoing any "brain testing" I can tell you that my learning skills and memory have definitely sharpened and improved through blogging. I'm now a believer in neuroplasticity.
So, in light of my 2 year blogging experience, I was really struck when I read this quote by Merzenich in Doidge's book:
Merzenich:"We have an intense period of learning in childhood. Every day is a day of new stuff. And then, in our early employment, we are intensely engaged in learning and acquiring new skills and abilities. And more and more as we progress in life we are operating as users of mastered skills and abilities."
Doidge: "Psychologically, middle age is often an appealing time because, all else being equal, it can be a relatively placid period compared with what has come before. Our bodies aren't changing as they did in adolescence; we're more likely to have a solid sense of who we are and be skilled at a career. We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before.
We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger, trying to learn a new vocabulary or master new skills.
Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning.
By the time we hit our seventies, we many not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years.
That's why learning a new language in old age is so good for improving and maintaining the memory generally. Because it requires intense focus, studying a new language turns on the control system for plasticity and keeps it in good shape laying down sharp memories of all kinds. And it keeps up the production of acetylcholine and dopamine.
Anything that requires highly focused attention will help that system--learning new physical activities that require concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material."
So, yes, maybe go ahead and add blueberry juice to your daily diet, but better yet, find something that's really interesting to you and start learning all about it--even though there won't be a test on it in 2 weeks!