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Do blueberries and fish oil give our brains a boost?

Research suggests that certain foods, diets can help improve memory function

Research in recent years suggests that certain foods can give our brain a boost—dark berries, like grapes and blueberries, and cold water fish like salmon, just to name a few. With studies showing cognitive benefit from a diet rich in these foods, researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) set out to investigate whether steady long-term supplementation of blueberries and fish oil, either alone or combined, would show improvements in older adults with complaints of mild neurological deficits, like forgetfulness.

The answer they got, surprisingly, was yes and no. Separately, participants in the fish oil study group and in the blueberry consumption group both showed fewer cognitive symptoms with objective memory improvement for those in the blueberry group; however, those in the group taking both blueberry and fish oil supplements showed no objective or subjective cognitive enhancement. These results are published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging (April 2018).

“We wondered whether combining fish oil and blueberry supplementation might produce enhanced benefit as opposed to either supplement alone. Our findings, showing an absence of benefit, were surprising, particularly in the context of our findings of benefit with the individual treatments. Perhaps it’s possible that long-term daily supplement of both on an otherwise restricted diet may have been ineffective through sustained rather than intermittent activation of shared antioxidant mechanisms,” says Robert Krikorian, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the UC College of Medicine and corresponding author on the study.

However, the individual groups taking either blueberry or fish oil did report a reduction in cognitive difficulties in everyday life.

“People receiving the fish oil supplement reported fewer of those (cognitive symptoms) at the end of the study vs. beginning of the study. The same was true for those taking blueberries. They reported a reduction relative to the placebo, and in addition, there was a finding of improved memory performance in the blueberry-only group,” notes Krikorian.

The study included 94 participants who were an average age of 68 years old and who had self-reported some mild neurological deficits. Participants took supplements daily for 24 weeks.

Additional authors on the fish oil and blueberries research included Robert McNamara, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience. Krikorian’s research efforts are supported by U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, the California Strawberry Council and philanthropic support from the Lurie Family.


New Studies on Berries, Diet and Cognition

Now, Krikorian has launched three new trials in a slightly younger population to look further into how diet may affect the brain, perhaps even prevent neurological deficit.

His studies include a continuation of blueberry supplementation, a new study with strawberry supplementation and now, a ketogenic diet that strictly limits carbohydrate consumption, to evaluate how it may affect cognition. The studies range from 8 to 12 weeks.

“Studies have shown that older adults with subjective cognitive complaints are at an increased risk for future dementia and a subset of these individuals exhibit early cognitive decline,” he says. “Because of this, we see an increasing interest in evaluating healthy interventions in midlife to prevent or delay future dementia.”

“Since our studies target middle-aged individuals with greater risk for late-life dementia, we included being overweight as one of our criteria,” says Krikorian. “This is often associated with insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, and other features (such as high blood pressure) that are typical of the metabolic syndrome. While not all overweight people will have metabolic syndrome, a high proportion will. And, all of these features—hyperinsulinemia, high blood pressure, and others—are risks for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.”

Criteria for participants of the current studies must be between the ages of 50-65, have a BMI of 25 or greater, and are aware of mild memory decline such as forgetfulness or short-term memory difficulty.

Featured image at top, and within story: Blueberries. Photos/Colleen Kelley/AHC Communications Services

Interested in a nutrition-cognition study?
For more information or to learn if you might qualify, contact Marcelle Shidler at shidlemd@ucmail.uc.edu or call 513-558-2455.