Maybe you are the type of person who is perfectly happy just knowing that certain foods (berries, for instance) are really good for you…or maybe you are the type who wants to know exactly how and why. If, you fall into the second group, you’ll enjoy knowing that eating lots of berries is like regularly doing a fresh “spring cleaning” of your brain. Recent research shows that berries activate the brain’s natural “housekeeping” mechanism to clean out toxic proteins that build up over time and cause memory loss and other forms of mental decline.

We learned this intriguing bit of information from Shibu Poulose, PhD, a molecular biologist at the USDA’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

With his colleagues at the USDA lab at Tufts, Dr. Poulose studies how blueberries, strawberries, acai and other berries (along with nuts) support brain health. Past research had demonstrated that berries’ high level of polyphenols, especially a class of flavonoids known as anthocyanins, possess powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties thought to protect cognitive function. Now we know more.

Mopping Up the Mess

The brain regularly consumes huge amounts of oxygen—20% of our intake at rest and much more when we are actively thinking. All this activity generates a heavy load of oxidants and toxic proteins that build up in brain cells, damaging and even destroying them, perhaps contributing to neurological illnesses such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Autophagy—the scientific name for a cell’s natural housekeeping mechanism—normally breaks down, recycles and removes these waste products, with cells called microglia acting as the housekeepers. But as microglia become less efficient in aging brains, toxic debris accumulates and interferes with mental function.

The new research finding: Using cultures of mouse brain cells, Dr. Poulose discovered that berry extracts restore the brain’s natural housekeeping mechanism and prevent age-related brain-cell degeneration by activating genes responsible for toxic protein disposal. In related research, investigators found that walnut extract—an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and other antioxidant polyphenols—also decreases inflammation and encourages good neural housekeeping. Note:Flaxseed oil has the highest concentration of ALA.

Dr. Poulose presented these findings at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in August 2010. Another scientist, Barbara Shukitt-Hale, PhD (lead scientist of the Neuroscience Lab at USDA-HNRCA) and colleagues are now initiating a study of berry-containing diets in older men and women, with the ultimate goal of applying their results to human brain health.

Meanwhile, to keep your housekeeping cells hard at work and optimize your mental health in later years, Dr. Poulose advises eating plenty of polyphenol-rich, brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Include not just berries (frozen and fresh are both OK) in your diet, but also a variety of produce with deep bluish purple, red and orange hues (eggplant, beets, purple grapes, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc.). These colors come from antioxidant anthocyanin pigments. And while you’re at it, enjoy some raw walnuts—about an ounce a day. They’ll do your brain good!

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