Sep. 29, 1998 WASHINGTON, D.C. September 28 -- Fruits and veggies are known to protect against cancer and heart disease. Now, for the first time, animal research shows that they also prevent the natural decline in brain function that comes with old-age.
"Nutritional intervention with fruits and vegetables may play an important role in protecting against and possibly reversing the movement and cognitive declines seen from aging," says the study's lead author James Joseph, PhD, Chief of Neuroscience at the United States Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
Joseph's study, funded primarily by the USDA, the National Institute on Aging and the Department of Veteran's Affairs, is published in the October 1 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.
"The new research is very interesting because it examines the interface between nutrition and neuroscience," says neurodegeneration expert Joseph Coyle, MD, of Harvard Medical School. "Very little is published on this area."
In the study, the researchers found that eating the daily equivalent of a pint of strawberries or a large spinach salad reduces specific effects of brain aging in rats. "Our results show that these foods, particularly spinach, may be beneficial in retarding age-related central nervous system and cognitive behavioral deficits and perhaps may have some benefit in neurodegenerative disease," says J. Joseph. The animals were fed a strawberry, spinach or vitamin E supplemented diet for eight months. Molecular results show that the diets protect against declines in nerve cell communications that are important for movement learning and control. In addition, the diets ward off a dip in memory performance seen in old-age, according to a water maze test.
The researchers examined strawberries and spinach because they are loaded with antioxidants. These protective molecules fight off very harmful molecules known as free radicals. They also tested vitamin E as a control because it is a known antioxidant.
"As we age we lose the ability to neutralize the effects of free radicals," says J. Joseph. These unstable oxygen molecules are always looking for other molecules to combine with because they have one or more unpaired electrons in their outer orbits. If antioxidants do not intercept the free radicals then their rush for a mate can sometimes damage or kill the cells they attach to.
"The brain may be particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of free radicals because it is relatively deficient in antioxidants to begin with," says J. Joseph. "Free radical destruction is thought to be a contributing factor to the decline in memory and motor performance seen in aging."
In future studies the scientists will test other antioxidant-filled foods such as blueberries. The researchers also plan to determine if the antioxidants can reverse age-related brain effects.
J. Joseph's co-authors included Barbara Shukitt-Hale, PhD, also of the USDA and Paula Bickford, PhD, of the Department of Veteran's Affairs Medical Center in Denver. J. Joseph, Shukitt-Hale and Bickford are members of the Society for Neuroscience, an organization of more than 27,000 basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and nervous system. The Society publishes The Journal of Neuroscience.
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