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Keep Your Brain Young With Berries

raspberry pints

— Richard Wong/Photolibrary.com

Pour yourself a bowl of brightly colored berries to refresh your brain as well as your taste buds.

Recent research shows that fresh or frozen strawberries, blueberries, acai berries and other deeply colored berries can help the brain stay healthy. These berries, and possibly walnuts, activate the brain's own housekeeper cells, which clean up and recycle toxic debris linked to age-related mental decline.

Scientists already know that aging involves a steady drop in the body's ability to protect itself from inflammation and biological wear and tear. But natural plant compounds called polyphenolics, found in many fruits, vegetables and nuts, can protect the brain. "In previous work we showed that supplementing the diets of aged mice with berry extracts improved their ability to process information," says molecular biologist Shibu Poulose of the USDA Human Nutrition Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

In new research presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston on Aug. 23, Poulose focused on why mental function declines with age. He believes there is a reduction in the brain's natural housecleaning process so that housekeeper cells, called microglia, fail to clean up biochemical debris. This toxic litter builds up in the brain and interferes with mental functioning. Poulose found that extracts from berries enable the microglia to remove the toxic chemicals before they do damage.

"This research fills in another piece of the puzzle," says neuroscientist Paula Bickford of the University of South Florida in Tampa, who was not involved in the research. "Most of what goes on in the aging brain is a damaging buildup of debris, and it can be removed. It's never too late to start eating berries."

In addition to berries, other deep red, orange and purplish blue fruits and vegetables contain these plant compounds. Look for red radishes, carrots, cherries, cranberries, acai berries, purple and red grapes and plums.

Nissa Simon writes about health and science.

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