Mayo Clinic: Blood Test May Offer Way to Detect Alzheimer's Onset

Blood offers promise as a way to detect Alzheimer's disease at its earliest onset, Mayo Clinic researchers say. They envision a test that would detect distinct metabolic signatures in blood plasma that are synonymous with the disease -- years before patients begin showing cognitive decline. Their study was recently published online in the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers analyzed cerebrospinal fluid and plasma samples from 45 people in the Mayo Clinic Study on Aging and Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Center (15 with no cognitive decline, 15 with mild cognitive impairment and 15 with Alzheimer's disease). They detected significant changes in the cerebrospinal fluid and plasma in those with cognitive decline and Alzheimer's. Most important, changes in plasma accurately reflected changes in the cerebrospinal fluid, validating blood as a reliable source for the biomarker development.

The team uses a relatively new technique called metabolomics, which measures the chemical fingerprints of metabolic pathways in the cell -- sugars, lipids, nucleotides, amino acids and fatty acids -- to detect the changes. Metabolomics assesses what is happening in the body at a given time and at a fine level of detail, giving scientists insight into the cellular processes that underlie a disease. In this case, the metabolomic profiles showed changes in metabolites related to mitochondrial function and energy metabolism, further confirming that altered mitochondrial energetics is at the root of the disease process.

The researchers hope that identified changes in the metabolic pathways could lead to the panel of biomarkers, which can eventually be used on a larger scale for early diagnosis, monitoring of Alzheimer's progression, and evaluating therapeutic approaches, says co-author Eugenia Trushina, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic pharmacologist.

"We want to use these biomarkers to diagnose the Alzheimer's disease before symptoms appear -- which can be decades before people start exhibiting memory loss," Dr. Trushina says. "The earlier we can detect the disease, the better treatment options we will be able to offer."

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Menopause and Memory Problems

Memory problems are a common complaint of women going through menopause, and now a new study provides more evidence linking mood and hot flashes to loss of memory abilities during menopause.

Researchers found that women who felt their memory wasn't functioning well scored lower in a series of psychological tests of attention and memory. The women's cognitive performance was still within the normal range, but their ratings of their own memory abilities lined up with how well they performed in the tests.

The study also revealed links between memory abilities and mood, and the severity of menopause symptoms. Women who reported more negative emotions did worse on the tests than women who had felt less negative. Similarly, women who experienced severe hot flashes did worse on the tests compared to women who had fewer hot flashes.
"The good news for women is that there's proof that their perception about their performance is real," said Dr. Margery Gass, the executive director for The North American Menopause Society and a gynecologist at Cleveland Clinic. She was not involved in the study.

In the study, researchers gave eight tests of attention and memory to 68 women, ages 44 to 62, who experienced moderate to severe hot flashes. The women also completed questionnaires about their menopause symptoms, mood and memory.
It's most likely that memory abilities will return to the norm after the menopause transition. But in the meantime, there are ways to ease the problem, Gass said. For example, it might help to address problems such as anxiety and depression and pay attention to sleep quality.

"Women should become proactive, make notes and lists, and make use of the little tricks that helps us perform better," she said.

The study was published online in the journal Menopause.

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Cinnamon May Ward off Alzheimer's?

Could the cinnamon challenge turn out to be good for your brain? According to a new study from researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, two compounds contained in the spice — cinnamaldehyde and epicatechin — may help prevent Alzheimer's disease by staving off the accumulation of defective proteins in the brain.

Tau is a protein found in neurons of the central nervous system, and it helps to stabilize microtubules, which in turn help make up the cellular scaffolding known as the cytoskeleton. When tau proteins become defective, they can no longer stabilize these microtubules. The proteins instead become misfolded and accumulate in the brain in large tangles, leading to problems like dementia and Alzheimer's. Though the aging process makes everyone susceptible to these tangles, Alzheimer's patients have them in larger amounts, said UC Santa Barbara in a press release.

In a previous study, the researchers showed that an extract of cinnamon could inhibit the aggregation of tau proteins in vitro, and could even help dissolve protein tangles isolated from an Alzheimer patient's brain. For this study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, they used cinnamaldehyde, which gives cinnamon its sweet smell, and epicatechin, an antioxidant also found in other foods like blueberries and red wine.

They found that the cinnamaldehyde binds to the residues of the cysteine amino acid on the tau protein. Because the cysteine residue is vulnerable to mutations and modifications, binding to the residues protects tau from oxidative stress, and could prevent the misfolded tau from clumping together, UC Santa Barbara said.

"Take, for example, sunburn, a form of oxidative damage," wrote study senior author Donald Graves in the press statement. "If you wore a hat, you could protect your face and head from the oxidation. In a sense this cinnamaldehyde is like a cap." And cinnamaldehyde can also detach from tau after binding, so it wouldn't get in the way of the protein's proper functioning, Graves added.

Epicatechin also helps prevent damage from oxidative stress, the researchers found. It is actually activated by oxidation so it can add to the protective effect of cinnamaldehyde on the cysteine residues.

"These compounds protected tau from oxidation caused by the reactive oxygen species, H2O2, and prevented subsequent formation of high molecular weight species that are considered to stimulate tangle formation," the researchers wrote in their study.

"Cell membranes that are oxidized also produce reactive derivatives, such as acrolein, that can damage the cysteines," added study co-author Roshni George in the statement. "Epicatechin also sequesters those byproducts."
It's still far too early to know if cinnamon can help prevent Alzheimer's disease in people, the researchers said, and they cautioned against ingesting larger amounts than usual of the spice at this point. But if the results of this study hold up to further research, Graves said, a small molecule based on these two compounds could slow the progression or even prevent the development of Alzheimer's disease. 

Source: George RC, Lew J, Graves DJ. Interaction of Cinnamaldehyde and Epicatechin with Tau: Implications of Beneficial Effects in Modulating Alzheimer's Disease Pathogenesis. The Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. 2013. 

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Caloric Restriction in Mice Preserves Cognitive Function

Activating an enzyme known to play a role in the anti-aging benefits of calorie restriction delays the loss of brain cells and preserves cognitive function in mice, a new study has found.
The findings could one day guide researchers to discover drug alternatives that slow the progress of age-associated impairments in the brain.
Previous studies have shown that reducing calorie consumption extends the lifespan of a variety of species and decreases the brain changes that often accompany aging and neurodegenerative diseasessuch as Alzheimer's.
There is also evidence that caloric restriction activates an enzyme called Sirtuin 1 (SIRT1), which studies suggest offers some protection against age-associated impairments in the brain.
In the current study, Li-Huei Tsai, PhD, Johannes Graff, PhD, and others at the Picower Institute For Learning and Memory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, tested whether reducing caloric intake would delay the onset of nerve cell loss that is common in neurodegenerative disease, and if so, whether SIRT1 activation was driving this effect.
The group not only confirmed that caloric restriction delays nerve cell loss, but also found that a drug that activates SIRT1 produces the same effects.
"There has been great interest in finding compounds that mimic the benefits of caloric restriction that could be used to delay the onset of age-associated problems and/or diseases," Luigi Puglielli, MD, PhD, who studies aging at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and was not involved in this study, said.
"If proven safe for humans, this study suggests such a drug could be used as a preventive tool to delay the onset of neurodegeneration associated with several diseases that affect the aging brain," Puglielli added.
In the study, Tsai's team first decreased by 30 percent the normal diets of mice genetically engineered to rapidly undergo changes in the brain associated with neurodegeneration.
Following three months on the diet, the mice completed several learning and memory tests.
"We not only observed a delay in the onset of neurodegeneration in the calorie-restricted mice, but the animals were spared the learning and memory deficits of mice that did not consume reduced-calorie diets," Tsai said.
The study is published in The Journal of Neuroscience. (ANI)

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Vitamin B - Alzheimer's Prevention?

Elderly people could stave off Alzheimer's disease by taking Vitamin B supplements because they reduce brain shrinkage associated with the disease by up to 90 per cent, a study suggests.

Consuming vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid can lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to shrinkage of the brain in conditions like Alzheimer's disease.
Previous studies had shown that patients with mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer's, suffered 50 per cent less brain shrinkage overall if they took vitamin B supplements.
But the new study of 156 patients, by researchers from Oxford University, found that the shrinkage was in fact reduced by 90 per cent in particular areas of the brain which are most vulnerable in Alzheimer's patients.
The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, suggest that the vitamins could be even more protective than previously realised.
Dr. David Smith, who led the study, said: "Our work shows that a key part of the disease process that leads to Alzheimer’s disease, the atrophy of specific brain regions, might be modified by a safe and simple intervention."

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Can Addicting Casual Games Make You Smarter?

Put away your crossword puzzles and head to your favorite casual gaming ap. 

Salon has a piece on whether or not casual games can influence cognition. By now, and referencing a 2010 study at East Carolina University, the evidence appears to be mounting that they can.

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Why Stress Can Be a Good Thing

Chronic stress makes people more susceptible to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. It can accelerate aging and hurt cognitive function.
In other words, living under a constant cloud of stress can do a lot of damage.
But temporary bursts of moderate stress may, in fact, be good for you, research is starting to show. Several recent studies from Bay Area scientists have found that a short, sharp spike in nerves – even just the anxiety of a pending math test – can actually have protective, positive biological effects.
“It’s really the way Mother Nature intended us to use our stress responses,” said Firdaus Dhabhar, an associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford.
Most of the research about stress has looked at chronic stress. But researchers say it is logical that some stress is beneficial. Exercise is a stressor, for example, and its benefits are well known. And our basic fight-or-flight instincts – another common form of acute stress – help us survive.
But scientists are just beginning to tease apart what exactly the benefits of short-term stress are and what is occurring on the molecular and cellular levels.
Dhabhar has found that when a temporary stressor – even the natural anxiety before a medical procedure – is coupled with an event that triggers an immune response, such as a surgery or vaccine injection, then the immune response is enhanced.
“The stress can come from any source,” Dhabhar said.
In one study from 2009, Dhabhar and other researchers found that people undergoing knee surgery whose moderate stress levels before the operation activated immune cells recovered faster and more completely in the first year than patients who had lower immune responses.
A study published in March by a team of UCSF and Stanford researchers found that a bit of stress neutralized some of the harmful molecules that build up in cells and protected cells from what is known as oxidative damage.
The study examined a group of women under chronic stress from taking care of a spouse or parent with dementia, and compared them to women with low levels of stress. The participants had to talk about themselves and perform math in front of a group of people who intentionally did not give them a warm reception.
Overall, the added strain caused greater cellular damage in the chronically stressed women than in the control group of non-stressed women. But among women in the group who had low stress to begin with, those who felt the most anxious about the test beforehand saw “significantly reduced levels of oxidative damage” in their cells, according to the study.
“Our best guess is that we may see certain types of mild stress can up-regulate antioxidant defenses, and now we are hoping to follow up to see if this is indeed the case,” said Kirstin Aschbacher, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF and an author of the study.
Some of the acute stress research is limited by the fact that the studies often are performed in animals, primarily because the field is still very new. Still, researchers hope that the findings gleaned from the animal models will be able to be reproduced in studies with human participants.
A UC Berkeley study published last month, for example, showed that brief periods of stress can enhance mental performance in rats.
In the study, the rats were immobilized for a few hours, which temporarily elevated levels of the stress hormone corticosterone, the rat version of the human hormone cortisol. Researchers found that the increase in corticosterone induced stem cells to generate new nerve cells in the brain’s hippocampus, an area associated with memory.
It took two weeks for the new nerve cells to mature, but once they did, the rats performed better on a memory test than they had on the same test before they were stressed.
The new nerve cells “were part of the neuronal network,” said Daniela Kaufer, an associate professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley. “We could show they were specifically activated.”
One focus of future research will be looking at how to maximize the effects of those short bursts of stress, Dhabhar said.
Scientists have wondered if manipulating stress hormone levels or putting someone through a psychological test could spark the same health benefits seen after naturally stressful situations.
And while experts said that finding ways to reduce overall stress and the duration of it is a vital determinant of health, there are likely more benefits to be discovered about a little stress here and there.
“Not all stress is bad – there’s no need to get stressed about stress,” Dhabhar said. “Admittedly, it’s easier said than done.”

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Computer Games May Help Reverse Brain Aging

Senior citizens, put down the crossword puzzles and start playing computer games.

A new government study finds that cognitive-training computer games can reverse aging in the brain.
One game called Double Decision forces users to find matching road sign icons amid a series of increasing distractions on the screen.

While the NIH study showed older people's memories improved, as did their reasoning and visual processing skills, doctors who work with senior citizens say there isn't enough research yet to show computer games will help people with their everyday lives, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The study appeared in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

On a related note, The Wall Street Journal says the AARP now offers discounts for certain games based on proven benefits.

Cognitive Labs games have been featured in the Journal of Psychiatric Research as well as other academic publications.

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Intelligence May Not Reside in the Frontal Lobe

The frontal lobes are not disproportionately larger compared to other regions of the brain, suggesting other areas of the brain may play a role in humans’ unique cognitive abilities, according to new research published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Researchers from Durham University and Reading University compared the size of the frontal lobes – regions of a mammal’s brain that are located at the front of each cerebral hemisphere – in both people and other animal species in what they are calling “the most accurate and conclusive study of this area of the brain” to date.
They discovered it is not large enough to be solely responsible for our species’ intelligence, and that other areas of the brain (such as the cerebellum) also played a role in the expansion of human intelligence. Furthermore, the study authors assert these other regions could play surprisingly important roles, not just in cognitive ability but also in related medical disorders such as autism and dyslexia.
“Probably the most widespread assumption about how the human brain evolved is that size increase was concentrated in the frontal lobes,” lead author Professor Robert Barton of the Durham University Department of Anthropology, said in a statement.
“It has been thought that frontal lobe expansion was particularly crucial to the development of modern human behavior, thought and language, and that it is our bulging frontal lobes that truly make us human. We show that this is untrue: human frontal lobes are exactly the size expected for a non-human brain scaled up to human size,” he added. “This means that areas traditionally considered to be more primitive were just as important during our evolution.”
Those other areas, Barton said, should start receiving more attention from scientists, as there is already some evidence linking damage to the cerebellum with autism and dyslexia.
Furthermore, he and his colleagues believe several of an individual’s most complex abilities are carried out using extensive neurological networks that link several different parts of the brain. They report the structure of those networks – not the size of any one specific brain region – is likely what is most essential in cognitive function.
Past research had attempted to determine whether or not a human’s frontal lobes are disproportionately larger compared to their size in apes, monkeys and other primates. However, Barton’s team said the results of those studies have been largely inconsistent due to the their methods and measurements.
The UK researchers looked at data sets from previous human and animal studies using phylogenetic methods. These methods, which focus on studying evolutionary relationships between organisms, produced results that were consistent throughout all of their data.
They said they used a new method which looked at the speed with which evolutionary changes occurred, and found the frontal lobes did not evolve particularly fast in the human line once it split from the chimpanzee lineage. Their research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which distributes grants for educational and research purposes.

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Omega 3 and Cognitive Impairment

New research shows that taking Omega 3 may reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases by reducing oxidative stress, says the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. 

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Researchers Find Brain Area Involved in Emotional Self-Control

Different areas of the brain are activated when we choose to suppress an emotion, compared to when we are instructed to suppress an emotion, according a new study.
Researchers from the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Ghent University scanned the brains of healthy participants and found that key brain systems were activated when choosing to suppress an emotion.

“This result shows that emotional self-control involves a quite different brain system from simply being told how to respond emotionally,” said lead author Dr. Simone Kuhn of Ghent University.

In previous studies, participants were instructed to feel or suppress an emotional response. However, in everyday life we are rarely told to suppress our emotions, and usually have to decide whether to feel or control our emotions, the researchers noted.

In the new study, the researchers showed 15 healthy women unpleasant or frightening pictures. The women were given a choice to feel the emotion elicited by the image or to inhibit the emotion by distancing themselves through an act of self-control.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the women’s brains. They then compared these scans to another experiment where the women were instructed to feel or inhibit their emotions, rather than make the choice for themselves.
What the researchers found is that different parts of the brain were activated in the two situations. When participants decided for themselves to inhibit negative emotions, the scientists found activation in the dorso-medial prefrontal area of the brain. They previously linked this area to deciding to inhibit movement.

In contrast, when the participants were instructed to inhibit the emotion, a second, more lateral area was activated.

“We think controlling one’s emotions and controlling one’s behavior involve overlapping mechanisms,” said Kuhn. “We should distinguish between voluntary and instructed control of emotions, in the same way as we can distinguish between making up our own mind about what do versus following instructions.”

The brain mechanism identified in the study could be a potential target for therapies, according to Professor Patrick Haggard of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and co-author of the study.

“The ability to manage one’s own emotions is affected in many mental health conditions, so identifying this mechanism opens interesting possibilities for future research,” he said.
“Most studies of emotion processing in the brain simply assume that people passively receive emotional stimuli, and automatically feel the corresponding emotion. In contrast, the area we have identified may contribute to some individuals’ ability to rise above particular emotional situations.

“This kind of self-control mechanism may have positive aspects, for example making people less vulnerable to excessive emotion,” he continued. “But altered function of this brain area could also potentially lead to difficulties in responding appropriately to emotional situations.”

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Cholesterol Drugs and Cognitive Decline

Unusual swelling within some of the brain’s neurons might be responsible for the reversible memory loss and impaired thinking ability experienced by some patients who take cholesterol-lowering statins, researchers from the University of Arizona (UA) claim in a new study.
The side effects, which have been observed by both physicians and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) personnel, could be caused by this phenomenon – which the researchers have dubbed the “beads-on-a-string” effect. They compare it to a “traffic jam” of sorts, in which changes in the morphology of the neurons disrupt their function.
According to lead investigator Linda L. Restifo, she and her colleagues are not entirely certain why these so-called beads form, but they are confident that further detailed analysis of them will shed new light on why some individuals experience cognitive decline while taking these widely-prescribed drugs.
“What we think we’ve found is a laboratory demonstration of a problem in the neuron that is a more severe version for what is happening in some peoples’ brains when they take statins,” Restifo, a UA professor of neuroscience,neurology and cellular and molecular medicine, said in a statement. Her team’s research has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Disease Models & Mechanisms.
The researchers, citing clinical reports, explain doctors often tell statin users that cognitive disturbances experienced while taking the medications were the result of aging or other effects. However, they state their research provides new evidence of a link between cognitive decline and a negative response to the cholesterol-lowering drug, and removing statins causes the disappearance of the beads-on-a-string phenomenon.
Restifo’s team plans to continue their research in order to establish exactly how DNA could play a role in the formation of the beads, and whether or not there are genetic causes for the hypersensitivity to statins in some individuals. They believe potential genetic differences could possibly directly involve the neurons themselves, or alternatively the interaction between the drug and the person’s blood-brain barrier.
“This is a great first step on the road toward more personalized medication and therapy. If we can figure out a way to identify patients who will have certain side effects, we can improve therapeutic outcomes,” said David M. Labiner, the head of the UA department of neurology.
The team is now attempting to secure additional funding in the form of pending grants. Restifo said they hope to complete genetic studies as part of their future research. If they are able to do so, the goal of their continued research would be “to come up with a predictive test so that a patient with high cholesterol could be tested first to determine whether they have a sensitivity to statins,” Restifo concluded.

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Wild Blueberries and Your Cognitive Health

What started 10 years ago with a few studies looking into the impact of blueberry consumption and Alzheimer’s Disease has led to more research relating to Parkinson’s Disease, cognitive performance in children, balance and hearing.
During this time, researchers have learned a tremendous amount about the powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in blueberries. Now, they want to learn more and are launching new studies into the health benefits of the naturally occurring compounds found in blueberries – polyphenols, flavonoids and anthocyanins.
Previous studies have shown the potential for compounds in blueberries to impact memory and mood in older adults, as well as the function of compounds in blueberries to enable “housekeeper” cells in the brain to remove biochemical debris, which is believed to contribute to the decline of mental functioning with age.
Below are some of the many brain-related studies currently underway looking into how compounds in blueberries can help improve brain health and protect against other diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.
Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s Disease is a degenerative disease that affects the area of the brain that controls movement, and researchers at Purdue University and North Carolina State University are looking for ways polyphenol compounds in Wild Blueberries may slow or help prevent Parkinson’s Disease.
“Hundreds of thousands of people are impacted by Parkinson’s Disease in the U.S. alone. The potential positive impact of discovering a link between compounds in Wild Blueberries and Parkinson’s is huge,” noted Mary Ann Lila, Director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State and a leading researcher in this area. 

Age-Related Memory Decline 
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, led by Robert Krikorian, are continuing studies investigating the effects of blueberry supplementation on age related memory decline, brain function and structure, and biological markers associated with neurodegeneration. These studies build on earlier Krikorian research (link below) studying whether Wild Blueberry supplemented diets improved memory function and mood in older adults with early memory decline. 

Improved Cognitive Performance in Young Children
There has been a great deal of research focused on how compounds in Wild Blueberries impact adults. Now, new studies are looking at children and the link between blueberry-containing diets. Following consumption of a blueberry rich drink, children ages seven through nine showed interesting changes in cognitive performance including evidence of improvements in recall and certain aspects of attention. Researchers at the University of Reading in England will publish their results later in 2013. 

Most people do not often connect hearing loss with brain function, but in fact, significant hearing impairment is related to the way the brain processes signals. Because of this brain connection and what researchers already know about the potential of compounds in Wild Blueberries to improve brain health, researchers are studying the effects of frozen Wild Blueberries on hearing and cognition in older adults. 

Balance and Cognition 

As people age, their ability to balance can deteriorate. Scientists at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston are currently exploring how blueberries impact balance, gait and cognition in older subjects.
“Balance is critical to many mobile functions,” said Barbara Shukitt-Hale, one of the leaders of the study at Tufts. “Diminished ability to balance can cause difficulty walking, increase falls and result in an inability to carry out many daily tasks that are critical for independent living.”
The Wild Blueberry 

According to research, Wild Blueberries contain higher concentrations of compounds than most other berries, making them an excellent choice for people looking to improve health through diet. This same research also states that it is never too early or too late to benefit from the compounds in Wild Blueberries. It is simple and easy to make Wild Blueberries part of a healthy diet because they are frozen at the peak of antioxidant freshness to lock in their nutritive value and available year round in the frozen fruit case of grocery stores.
“It’s best if you can get a daily dose of Wild Blueberries but if not individuals should aim for enjoying them a minimum of 3-4 times a week for maximum nutritional benefits,” said Susan Davis, MS, RD, nutrition advisor to the Wild Blueberry Association of North America. “Try frozen Wild Blueberries in smoothies, a handful on oatmeal or yogurt or sprinkled on an open-face peanut butter sandwich for a great way to get the protective nutrition all bodies need for good health.”
About the Wild Blueberry Association of North America (http://www.wildblueberries.com)
The Wild Blueberry Association of North America is a trade association of growers and processors of Wild Blueberries from Maine and Canada, dedicated to bringing the Wild Blueberry health story and unique Wild Advantages to consumers and the trade worldwide.

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Brain System for Emotional Self-Control

Different brain areas are activated when we choose to suppress an emotion, compared to when we are instructed to inhibit an emotion, according a new study from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Ghent University.

In this study, published in Brain Structure and Function, the researchers scanned the brains of healthy participants and found that key brain systems were activated when choosing for oneself to suppress an emotion. They had previously linked this brain area to deciding to inhibit movement.

"This result shows that emotional self-control involves a quite different brain system from simply being told how to respond emotionally," said lead author Dr Simone Kuhn (Ghent University).

In most previous studies, participants were instructed to feel or inhibit an emotional response. However, in everyday life we are rarely told to suppress our emotions, and usually have to decide ourselves whether to feel or control our emotions.

In this new study the researchers showed fifteen healthy women unpleasant or frightening pictures. The participants were given a choice to feel the emotion elicited by the image, or alternatively to inhibit the emotion, by distancing themselves through an act of self-control.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of the participants. They compared this brain activity to another experiment where the participants were instructed to feel or inhibit their emotions, rather than choose for themselves.

Different parts of the brain were activated in the two situations. When participants decided for themselves to inhibit negative emotions, the scientists found activation in the dorso-medial prefrontal area of the brain. They had previously linked this brain area to deciding to inhibit movement.

In contrast, when participants were instructed by the experimenter to inhibit the emotion, a second, more lateral area was activated.

"We think controlling one's emotions and controlling one's behaviour involve overlapping mechanisms," said Dr Kuhn.

"We should distinguish between voluntary and instructed control of emotions, in the same way as we can distinguish between making up our own mind about what do, versus following instructions."
Regulating emotions is part of our daily life, and is important for our mental health. For example, many people have to conquer fear of speaking in public, while some professionals such as health-care workers and firemen have to maintain an emotional distance from unpleasant or distressing scenes that occur in their jobs.

Professor Patrick Haggard (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) co-author of the paper said the brain mechanism identified in this study could be a potential target for therapies.

"The ability to manage one's own emotions is affected in many mental health conditions, so identifying this mechanism opens interesting possibilities for future research.

"Most studies of emotion processing in the brain simply assume that people passively receive emotional stimuli, and automatically feel the corresponding emotion. In contrast, the area we have identified may contribute to some individuals' ability to rise above particular emotional situations.

"This kind of self-control mechanism may have positive aspects, for example making people less vulnerable to excessive emotion. But altered function of this brain area could also potentially lead to difficulties in responding appropriately to emotional situations."

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Champagne May Roll Back the Onset of Alzheimer's Disease

With the growing threat of Alzheimer’s for millions of Baby Boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) it only makes sense to find ways that may prevent the mind-robbing disease. Research last year uncovered possible evidence that resveratrol found in red wine may help in preventing cognitive decline. Now, a new study is looking at another type of alcohol that may also ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers from Reading University have found that three glasses of champagne per week could help prevent the onset of brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The team discovered that a compound found in black wine grapes (Pinot noir and Pinot meunier) help fight forgetfulness.
Champagne, which is made using these types of grapes, could now be just the right beverage for tackling dementia before it has a chance to set in. This is not the first time the bubbly has been touted for its health benefits. The same Reading team found in 2009 that champagne is good for the heart and blood circulation.
The memory-helping compound in champagne, however, is much different: phenolic acid. About 80 percent of all champagne is made from the two black grape varieties blended together with a white Chardonnay grape.
The researchers, led by Jimmy Spencer, a biochemistry professor at Reading, found that phenolic acid provokes a noticeable boost to spatial memory, allowing the ability to recognize surroundings and help people find their way home.
“Dementia probably starts in the 40s and goes on to the 80s. It is a gradual decline and so the earlier people take these beneficial compounds in champagne, the better,” Spencer told Mail Online’s Valerie Elliott.
Spencer said that while his team’s study was conducted on rats, there is a strong confidence among the team that the results would be remarkably similar in the human brain.
For the study, rats were either given champagne daily, mixed in their feed for six weeks or not given champagne at all. Each rat was also allowed to run through a maze to find an edible treat. The task was then repeated five minutes later to see if the rat remembered where it had retrieved the first treat and where it could find another.
The rats that did not have champagne mixed in their feed had a 50 percent success rate in the maze experiment. However, after champagne was added to the feed, success rates shot up to 70 percent on average.
“The results were dramatic. After rats consumed champagne regularly, there was a 200 per cent increase of proteins important for determining effective memory. This occurred in rats after just six weeks. We think it would take about three years in humans,” Spencer told Mail Online.
“This research is exciting because it illustrates for the first time that moderate consumption of champagne has the potential to influence cognitive functioning such as memory,” he added.
Spencer and his team now hope to conduct the experiments on older human subjects, asking them to drink champagne for three years to further test the mind-aiding benefits of the fizz.
“This is an interesting study, especially for those who enjoy a glass of bubbly,” said a spokesperson for the Alzheimer’s Society. “However, people should not start celebrating just yet. This is the first time a link between champagne and dementia risk reduction has been found. A lot more research is needed.”

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Exceptional Longevity in Families and Cognitive Impairment

A study by Stephanie Cosentino, Ph.D., of Columbia University, New York, and colleagues examines the relationship between families with exceptional longevity and cognitive impairment consistent with Alzheimer disease. 

The cross-sectional study included a total of 1,870 individuals (1,510 family members and 360 spouse controls) recruited through the Long Life Family Study. The main outcome measure was the prevalence of cognitive impairment based on a diagnostic algorithm validated using the National Alzheimer's Coordinating Center data set.

According to study results, the cognitive algorithm classified 546 individuals (38.5 percent) as having cognitive impairment consistent with Alzheimer disease. Long Life Family Study probands had a slightly but not statistically significant reduced risk of cognitive impairment compared with spouse controls (121 of 232 for probands versus 45 of 103 for spouse controls), whereas Long Life Family Study sons and daughters had a reduced risk of cognitive impairment (11 of 213 for sons and daughters versus 28 of 216 for spouse controls). 

Restriction to nieces and nephews in the offspring generation attenuated this association (37 of 328 for nieces and nephews versus 28 of 216 for spouse controls).

"Overall, our results appear to be consistent with a delayed onset of disease in long-lived families, such that individuals who are part of exceptionally long-lived families are protected but not later in life," the study concludes.

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Aging Triggered by Molecules in the Brain

The area of the brain that controls growth, reproduction and metabolism also kick-starts aging, according to a study published today in Nature. The finding could lead to new treatments for age-related illnesses, helping people to live longer.
Dongsheng Cai, a physiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and his colleagues tracked the activity of NF-κB — a molecule that controls DNA transcription and is involved in inflammation and the body's response to stress — in the brains of mice. They found that the molecule becomes more active in the brain area called the hypothalamus as a mouse grows older.
Further tests suggested that NF-κB activity helps to determine when mice display signs of aging. Animals lived longer than normal when they were injected with a substance that inhibited the activity of NF-κB in immune cells called microglia in the hypothalamus. Mice that received a substance to stimulate the activity of NF-κB died earlier.
“We have provided scientific evidence for the concept that systemic aging is influenced by a particular tissue in the body,” says Cai.

Health and well-being

The researchers examined the health and mental abilities of the mice six months after the initial experiment. Animals injected with the NF-κB inhibitor performed better than controls on tasks designed to test their cognition and movement. They also showed less age-related decline in muscle strength, skin thickness, bone mass and tail-tendon integrity. The mice in which NF-κB was activated experienced more age-related decline. The results were similar in males and females.
Most previous studies have simply observed how long mice live after treatment, says Richard Miller, a pathologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Looking at different aspects of age-specific functions is a very good idea,” he says. “It makes a much stronger case that the whole ageing process has in some way been decelerated.”
Treating middle-aged mice to suppress the production of IKK-β, an enzyme that activates NF-κB, in microglia in the hypothalamus also reduced age-related cognitive and physical declines. Suppressing IKK-β in all areas of the brain increased median lifespan by 23% and maximum lifespan by 20%.
The researchers report that NF-κB counteracts the effects of a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), reducing brain-cell growth and shutting down the mice's reproductive systems. Injecting mice with GnRH slowed down ageing and triggered the growth of new brain cells. That suggests that inflammation and stress are an evolutionary signal to the body to stop reproducing, which triggers the start of the ageing process. 
The findings are “a major breakthrough in ageing research”, says David Sinclair, a molecular biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.
He says that a key finding is that blocking the effects of NF-κB produced anti-ageing effects even when it was done in middle age. “If we’re going to translate this research into medicines that can help people, clearly we cannot start very early in life.”
The research “is certainly worth a lot of additional attention”, says Miller. He thinks that Cai's study will stimulate research into treatments for slowing down age-related illnesses that are linked to inflammation, such as arthritis, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

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Researchers: Video Games Can Help Protect Against Cognitive Decline

What we have known at Cognitive Labs is again born out by research:

Researchers say playing a video game can help to prevent the natural loss of cognitive abilities that begin in middle age.

Investigators from the University of Iowa found that seniors who played just 10 hours of a video game delayed mental declines by as many as seven years (over a range of cognitive skills).
Experts say active cognitive engagement — which primes mental processing speed and skills — reduces loss of cognitive skills.

“We know that we can stop this decline and actually restore cognitive processing speed to people,” said  Fredric Wolinsky, Ph.D., professor in the UI College of Public Health and lead author on the paper.

“So, if we know that, shouldn’t we be helping people? It’s fairly easy, and older folks can go get the training game and play it.”

The study comes amidst a burst of research examining why, as we age, our minds gradually lose “executive function,” generally considered mission control for critical mental activities, such as memory, attention, perception and problem solving.

Studies show loss of executive function occurs as people reach middle age; other studies say our cognitive decline begins as soon as 28 years of age.

Therefore, although the timing may be controversial, experts all agree that our mental capacities are on a downhill slope by middle age.

This acknowledgement has lead medical and public health experts to pursue research initiatives to understand the process and to develop interventions to mitigate the cognitive decline — as much as possible.

Wolinsky and colleagues separated 681 generally healthy medical patients in Iowa into four groups — each further separated into those 50 to 64 years of age and those over age 65.
One group was given computerized crossword puzzles, while three other groups were exposed to a video game called “Road Tour.” Briefly, the game revolves around identifying a type of vehicle (displayed fleetingly on a license plate) and then reidentifying the vehicle type and matching it with a road sign displayed from a circular array of possibilities, all but one of them false icons.

The player must succeed at least three out of every four tries to advance to the next level, which speeds up the vehicle identification and adds more distractions, up to 47 in all.
The goal, naturally, is to increase the user’s mental speed and agility at identifying the vehicle symbol and picking out the road sign from the constellation of distractors (which are rabbits, by the way).

“The game starts off with an assessment to determine your current speed of processing. Whatever it is, the training can help you get about 70 percent faster,” said Wolinsky, who has no financial stake in the game.

The groups that played the game at least 10 hours, either at home or in a lab at the university, gained at least three years of cognitive improvement when tested after one year, according to a formula developed by the researchers. A group that got four additional hours of training with the game did even better, improving their cognitive abilities by four years, according to the study.
“We not only prevented the decline; we actually sped them up,” Wolinsky says.

Experts say that improving people’s processing speed (how quick we can think) is considered important for a host of reasons. One widely accepted benefit is widening a person’s field of view.

“As we get older, our visual field collapses on us,” Wolinsky explains. “We get tunnel vision. It’s a normal functioning of aging. This helps to explain why most accidents happen at intersections because older folks are looking straight ahead and are less aware of peripherals.”

Recognizing this, the National Institutes of Health in the late 1990s commissioned the largest cognitive training study of its kind, called ACTIVE. The national, multi-site trial, in which Wolinsky was involved, showed the elderly’s memory, reasoning and visual processing speed could be improved with interventions, thus slowing the aging of their minds.

But the ACTIVE study had its limitations: Among them, the control group didn’t get any training and the primary goal was to assess the effects on seniors’ field-of-view vision.

Wolinsky’s team added an active control group — those doing the crossword puzzles. The researchers found those who played the “Road Tour” game also scored far better than the crossword puzzle group on tests involving executive function beyond field-of-view vision, such as concentration, nimbleness with shifting from one mental task to another and the speed at which new information is processed.

The improvement ranged from 1.5 years to nearly seven years in cognitive improvement, the study found.

“It’s the ‘use it or lose it’ phenomenon,” Wolinsky said. “Age-related cognitive decline is real, it’s happening, and it starts earlier and then continues steadily. The good news is we can do something about it. The question is will we?”

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