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Alaska blueberries: brain food

November 7, 2007

Courtesy of  Far North Science
By Doug O'Harra

Talk about living off the fat of the land. Alaska's wild berries - especially the blueberry species that emerge from countless tundra slopes and forest glades - may be one of nature's miracle foods, chock full of powerful nutrients that feed the brain and protect the nervous system from old-age breakdown.

New research has continued to show that blueberries, along with walnuts and strawberries and certain other fruits and nuts, contain high concentrations of antioxidant chemicals that can actually protect the brain from neuron-damaging substances known as free radicals.

Alaska blueberries
Source: NPS

New research has continued to show that blueberries, along with walnuts and strawberries and certain other fruits and nuts, contain high concentrations of antioxidant chemicals that can actually protect the brain from neuron-damaging substances known as free radicals.

In some cases, exposure to blueberry extracts reversed age-triggered ailments in lab animals, according to a story posted online by Society for Neuroscience.

And so, scarfing down gobs of Alaska blueberries, walnuts and other foods appears to improve cognition, maintain brain function and possibly help treat brain disorders, the story says.

While much of the story concentrates on research into the power of walnuts, conducted by James Joseph, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University in Boston, one section focuses on neurological studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks into blueberry magic.

UAF researcher Thomas Kuhn has discovered that Alaska wild bog blueberries simply drip with elixirs that combat inflammation in the central nervous system.

Brain and spinal inflammation goes along with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS, multiple sclerosis and other chronic degenerative diseases. You can even find inflammation in some mental illnesses or appearing during normal aging.

Bog blueberries appear to contain compounds that pair up with with a certain protein molecule in neurons, and this biochemical dance in turn "reduces detrimental effects of inflammation" that make these conditions worse.

Here's more detail, somewhat technical:

Understanding the interaction of these compounds could lead to the development of new drug therapies that would diminish inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

While the health benefits of fruits and vegetables are largely attributed to polyphenols, molecules with strong antioxidant potential, Kuhn says that, surprisingly, the compounds in Alaska blueberries discovered in their study are neither antioxidants nor polyphenols, yet rather serve as specific inhibitors.

Using a cell-based model of nueroinflammation, Kuhn's lab exposed neuronal cells to tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFa), a pivotal factor mediating inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. Exposure of neuronal cells to TNFa rapidly stimulates a cascade of reactions, which ultimately leads to the death of neuronal cells.

The application of Alaska blueberry extracts to neuronal cells effectively prevented the degeneration of neuronal cells exposed to TNFa.

"Expanding our knowledge of natural products' health benefits and their molecular targets in the nervous system would improve preventative measures and potentially reveal new therapeutic strategies to alleviate inflammation in the brain and spinal cord," says Kuhn.

Kuhn's work isn't the first time that Alaska's wild berries have been accused of providing a sort of medical manna. Another UAF researcher, Patricia Holloway, conducted a three-year study and found extraordinarily high levels of antioxidents in blueberries, cranberries, raspberries and a basket of other wild fruits Alaskans commonly gather as late summer cools.

For a 2006 summary of her result:

The original research with fruits showed that cultivated blueberries had the highest (anti-oxident activity) levels of commercial fruit with a score of about 20. Anything above 40 is considered very high. We conducted a research project to find out how our berries compared to the standards for commercial fruit. We learned that Alaska wild berries are a rich source of antioxidants. Nearly all wild frozen berries have (a score) greater than 20.

This conclusion actually appears to be an amazing understatement. Blueberries scored 111 and high bush cranberries hit 172 on the same scale. That makes Alaska wild blueberries more than five times more powerful as antioxidants than those pretty blue orbs shrunk-wrapped in grocery produce aisle. (Even Kuhn's bog blueberry scored 77 - packing more than three times the antioxidant jolt.)

One company based on the Kenai Peninsula, Denali BioTechnologies, has even begun to market a health supplement that taps the power of wild berries.

"The good news," Joseph said in the Society for Neuroscience story, "is that it appears that compounds found in fruits and vegetables - and, as we have shown in our research, walnuts - may provide the necessary protection to prevent the demise of cognitive and motor function in aging."


Doug O'Harra Most of  Far North Science is written and edited by Doug O'Harra, a writer and journalist based in Anchorage, Alaska.
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