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Consumer Reports

Research is serving up the evidence for brain food | (KRT) (Eating a spinach salad for lunch every day might be smarter than you think - it could make you think smarter.

If you don't like spinach, try a cup of blueberries instead. Unless you plan on flying to Mars - or otherwise exposing yourself to cosmic rays. In that case forget the blueberries - snarf down a daily pint of strawberries.

OK, this all sounds a little suspiciously like the dietary advice you get from those paid TV or radio shows pushing "miracle" medicines that supposedly maintain your mind in a perpetually youthful condition. But actually it's what real brain scientists are finding out about food for thought. If you want to keep your brain healthy and wise as you age, you don't need to be making the health-food-fad industry wealthy.

To be sure, it's a little too soon to clip a recipe for retaining your faculties from the meeting program of the Society for Neuroscience. But at the society's annual meeting, held last week in New Orleans, several researchers reported intriguing new clues, mostly from animal studies, to the secret of keeping the mind youthful as the body ages.

In rats, for instance, a blueberry-rich diet seemed to reduce levels of a brain chemical linked to memory loss with age. Older rats generally possess higher levels of the chemical, known as NF-Kappa-B, and higher levels of it correspond with poorer memory. But older rats that had been fed blueberry supplements had NF-Kappa-B levels similar to young rats in several brain regions involved in memory.

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"Of course, you cannot automatically apply these findings from rats to the human being," said David Malin, a neuroscientist at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, who participated in the study. "But nevertheless, these results are also consistent with a wider pattern of results emerging from a number of laboratories. And this pattern of results raises at least the possibility that fairly simple diet modifications might slow down the normal process of brain aging and memory impairment."

Malin said that it isn't clear how blueberries confer their benefits, but presumably some of the chemicals that produce the blue color also protect cells against the renegade molecular fragments called free radicals. Free radicals damage cells by the chemical process called oxidation; the protective chemicals found in blueberries and many other fruits and vegetables are therefore known as antioxidants. Common dietary antioxidants include vitamins C, E and forms of vitamin A.

Naturally you don't need to eat a cup of blueberries to get a good dose of antioxidants - you get about as much from a large spinach salad, said James Joseph of Tufts University in Boston. But nobody knows which particular antioxidant gives the brain the most benefit. In fact, it seems most likely that the best recipe contains combinations of various antioxidants.

"I think it's becoming clear that there's going to be no universal antioxidant," said Bernard Rabin, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Furthermore, different combinations may be best for protecting against different dangers. Blueberries, for instance, don't seem to help rats exposed to heavy atomic nuclei present in cosmic rays.

The cosmic ray question is a serious one, since future space travelers would no doubt be exposed to damaging doses without some sort of protection.

"There's no way to send enough shielding up there to protect the astronauts and still fly the mission," Rabin said during a news conference at the neuroscience society meeting. "We thought we would try some of the diets we've heard had been successful in counteracting the effects of aging."

Rats exposed to cosmic ray particles do not perform very well on tasks designed to get them to push a bar many times for a food reward. Even rats fed blueberry-enriched diets before and after exposure to the rays still eventually show less skill on the task.

But cosmic-rayed rats given a strawberry supplement perform similarly to the rats never exposed to cosmic ray particles at all.

"We believe diet can be an important component of radiation protection for astronauts on exploratory class missions to Mars and perhaps even to other planets," Rabin reported at the meeting.

Of course, many questions remain to be answered before you'll know for sure which is the best berry for your brain.

"It's still too early in the study of dietary supplements in fruits and vegetables to really zero in on exactly what's happening," said Carl Cotman, of the University of California, Irvine. Much more information is needed on what the proper doses are to produce beneficial effects, and especially on what mixture of chemicals is helpful in which circumstances.

"We scientists love to study known amounts of single characterized compounds - it's easy for us to study in a rigorous way," said Malin. "But Mother Nature may not think that way."

Nature, in other words, may produce complicated foods for a reason - possibly to help make brains smart enough to figure out what their owners ought to eat.

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© 2003, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services