Category Archives: Discoveries

How to Save Your Brain

A report published yesterday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) cites promising evidence indicating that active cognitive training, blood pressure management, and physical activity may collectively help stave off age-related cognitive decline and dementia.

In 2015, the Alzheimer’s Association released similar findings that identified two critical activities that could minimize the risk of cognitive decline: increasing physical activity, and improving cardiovascular health. Dan G. Blazer, a member of the NASEM committee that conducted the study and the J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at Duke University Medical Center, states: “What is good for the heart is good for the brain. Therefore, exercise and controlling high blood pressure are good for the brain.” While controlling blood pressure is good preventive practice to combat heart disease, it may also reduce memory less and dementia—likely because high blood pressure damages delicate blood vessels in the brain.

In terms of diet, a study released earlier this week by Temple University found that extra-virgin olive helped fend off Alzheimer’s in mice. The mice fed a diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil showed better learning and memory skills than those who did not receive the diet. While the evidence surrounding diet is not as conclusive and plentiful as the research regarding exercise, the panel singled out diets that emphasized whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lower levels of salts.

Cognitive training has been receiving more attention recently, referring to tools and tactics engineered to improve reasoning, problem-solving, memory retention, and processing speed. In a randomized control trial reviewed by the committee titled “Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly,” participants who received cognitive training in processing speed and reasoning deduction demonstrated less decline than those who did not, over a time span of ten years.

More than 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, and the number is only expected to increase as the population ages. Statistics show that by 2050, numbers could reach up to 16 million. There is no cure, and few effective treatments. Yet the evidence suggests that these lifestyle changes may actively reduce risk, or at least delay the onset of dementia. Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, advised people to “Try and avoid the tendency to sit down, watch television for endless hours at night. Get out there, do something.”

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Artificial Sweeteners: Tied to Stroke & Dementia

A new study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke suggests that artificial sweeteners, found in diet sodas, have considerable health risks for both the body and the brain.

The data was collected from the Framingham Heart Study, a project of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Boston University, and involved data on 2,888 adults older than 45 and 1,484 adults older than 60 from Framingham, Massachusetts. In the group aged 45-and-older, researchers measured for increased risk of stroke; in the group aged 60-and-older, researchers measured for dementia.

The statistics analyzed how many sugary beverages and artificially sweetened soft drinks each person in the two different age groups drank, between the years 1991 and 2001. That data was than compared against the number of people who suffered from stroke or dementia in the next decade.

Researchers found that—juxtaposed against people who never drank artificially sweetened soft drinks—those who drank one per day were almost three times as likely to have an ischemic stroke. Those who drank one per day were also almost three times as likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

Previous studies have shown a strong association between the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and a host of adverse health effects, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Professor and chair of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Dr. Ralph Sacco confirms that this article “provides further evidence on artificially sweetened beverages and their possibly effects on vascular health…we believe the pathways of which artificially sweetened beverages would affect the brain are probably through vascular mechanisms.”

Moreover, artificial sweeteners have been shown to cause glucose intolerance in mice by altering gut microbiota, and have been associated with dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in humans. The cumulative research strongly indicates that there is no benefit to using artificial sweeteners, or drinking diet soda, compared to regular sucrose or sugary drinks.

To learn more about the gut-immune-brain connection, and the different ways in which various types of inflammation can affect the body and brain, register for Module VII: Autoimmune Disease & Inflammation, from August 10-12.

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Human Umbilical Cord Blood: The Secret to Memory?

A recent study indicates that a specific protein in human umbilical cord blood plasma has the potential to improve learning and memory in aging, older mice.

In 1972, research demonstrated that when pairs of rats were surgically attached, older rats had increased lifespan when sharing a bloodstream with young rats. This particular study spearheaded a scientific effort surrounding the understanding and consensus of aging: certain materials from younger bodies or organisms can often improve or rejuvenate older ones, when transplanted.

Further findings produced exciting research; scientists have previously shown that young blood can restore cell activity in the muscles and livers of aging mice, and that linking older mice to young when helped reverse heart muscle thickening.

Although many of the findings have not been successfully replicated, there is a unanimous agreement that—like humans—as mice and rats age, their bodies and behavior change on profoundly fundamental levels. Joe Castellano, a neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine, saw that older mice tended to stop building nests, and became increasingly forgetful.

Castellano and his colleagues collectively hypothesized that young human blood might produce beneficial effects for aging mice; in a report published in the journal Nature, they state that they have located a protein in human umbilical cord blood that can improve both learning and memory in aging mice—a significant and exciting finding in the field of regenerative medicine.

The team collected plasma, the ‘watery part of blood,’ from people of different ages, in addition to plasma from human umbilical cords. They then injected human plasma from those different age groups, and from umbilical cord blood, into mice continuously over several weeks. The mice were aged 12 and 14 months, which is calculated to be approximately the mouse equivalent of being in late 50s or 60s.

When the mouse brains were dissected and the hippocampi were inspected, it was found that certain genes linked to the creation of new memories had been turned on in some of the mice. “So, we had a hint early on that one of these donor groups, specifically the [umbilical] cord plasma, might be having an effect on the brain itself,” Castellano says.

Castellano and his team then injected more aging mice with human plasma, and tested the animals’ ability to remember things. They found that after cord plasma treatment, mice escaped from a maze more rapidly; the performance in most areas was increased and improved. Similarly, mice treated with human umbilical cord performed better on memory tests.

A series of further experiments led Castellano and his colleagues to conclude that one specific protein—TIMP2—in human umbilical cord blood was responsible for the improvements. “The really exciting thing about this study, and previous studies that have come before it, is that we’ve sort of tapped into previously unappreciated potential of our blood — our plasma — and what it can do for reversing the harmful effects of aging on the brain,” says Castellano.

The research potentially hints at possible treatments and therapies that might ultimately work to prevent age-related illnesses from developing, including Alzheimer’s disease.

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