The USDA Touts its Hundred Year Blueberry History for Your Brain Health

By: Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
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If you are trying to find an example where our government has done something truly good for the health of the people, then look no further than blueberries. More than 100 years ago a researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Frederick Coville, figured out how to grow blueberries as a domestic crop. A century later USDA researchers lead the world in blueberry research and cognitive function – proving that blueberries are a true superfood with a novel ability to preserve the health of your brain.

During the past 20 years the USDA conducted impressive research on berries and aging, especially blueberries. Early on they realized the potent antioxidant power of blueberries and began testing it in various animal aging models.  They offset many aspects of brain aging with various antioxidant-rich nutrients, especially blueberries. Even though the researchers meticulously controlled their studies by providing the exact same antioxidant dose from different nutrients, blueberries stood out from the other berries.  This meant that it was more than just the antioxidant function that was producing benefit; the anthocyanins of blueberries were also doing something important.

A number of other animal experiments followed. They proved blueberries were well absorbed as part of a meal, and that blueberry anthocyanins crossed the blood brain barrier. They showed that cognitive performance was directly related to how much blueberry was getting into the brain.  They showed that it took one month of regular blueberry intake to reverse aging changes in the brain. However, as supplementation stopped then improvement stopped. They then showed that two months of supplementation enabled improvement in reversal of brain aging to continue for an additional month, even after the supplementation was stopped. This implies that ongoing and continual intake of blueberries induces rather significant improvement in brain function.

USDA and other researchers have sought to figure out how blueberries help your brain. Their ongoing research has identified a variety of mechanisms: 
1)  Blueberries help nerves communicate with each other more efficiently.
2)  Blueberries buffer calcium function in the brain. In your brain, calcium is like the electrical charge in a car battery, enabling nerve cells to generate an electrical signal.
3)  Blueberries boost stress response proteins that protect nerves from damage.
4)  Blueberries reduce the key inflammatory gene signal, NF-kappaB.
5)  Blueberries help build new nerve structures, resulting in better spatial memory.
6)  And of extreme importance, blueberries turn on gene signals that boost the plasticity of brain nerve networks, enabling a more flexible brain that is one hallmark of intelligence, superior cognitive ability, and a lack of aging.

The long and expensive process of human trials with blueberries has now begun. Older individuals with memory decline received blueberries for 12 weeks, with a significant improvement in cognitive function, learning, and word recall.  They also had a reduction in depressive symptoms while improving their blood sugar metabolism. 

Since no Big Pharma money is to be made proving that blueberries are far better for the brain than any drug under current research by the pharmaceutical industry, the very expensive blueberry studies will trickle out slowly over time, thanks in large part to the funding of and efforts by scientists at the USDA.

The recent USDA review concludes by saying, “Nutritional intervention with blueberries may be effective in forestalling or even reversing the neurological changes associated with aging.” Yes indeed, blueberries are a true brain superfood.

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