Research Spotlight: Blueberries on the brain
Sun Star Reporter
UAF neuroscience professor Tom Kuhn wants to make you healthier. His secret ingredient is the blueberry.
In 2006, Kuhn and a team of graduate student researchers began studying the effects of blueberries upon the inflammatory processes in the brain. Such processes are largely responsible for neurological and psychological disorders, as well as trauma-induced injury to the brain. “If we can take care of the inflammatory processes, we’ll have taken a huge step in taking care of the individual,” Kuhn said.
A publication of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service reports that Alaska blueberries are a particularly rich source of antioxidants. Oxidants cause extensive damage to an individual‘s DNA, protein, and lipids. A University of California Berkeley study says that damage is the same as that produced by radiation and is a major contributor to the aging process. Alaska blueberries scored higher on the oxygen radical absorption capacity test – ORAC, a test that determines a plant’s antioxidant properties – than wild blueberries found in the Lower 48. Alaska blueberries scored a 76 and wild blueberries a 61 on a test where anything above 40 is considered “very high,” according to the UAF Cooperative Extension Service.
The primary goal of the study, said Kuhn, was to understand the health benefits of blueberries in a balanced diet. “It goes far beyond the antioxidant respects,” he said. “That was the key goal, to demonstrate that natural products (raw foods and natural supplements) and the individual molecule can have a specific target.” That target is inflammation.
Kuhn also discussed a recent study conducted by a USDA Human Nutrition Research Center laboratory, in which neuroscientists discovered that feeding blueberries to mice slowed some age-related losses in memory and motor function. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, the mice were fed the human equivalent of one cup of blueberries per day and showed a marked increase in memory, motor skills, and exploratory behavior.
Kuhn is trying to identify the molecules that are tied to the blueberries’ health benefits. For him, it has been a surprising process. “[I was afraid] that the process would be hard and, relatively speaking, it wasn’t.” he said. For him, the relatively easy process has only taken a couple of years, with most of that being dedicated to gathering preliminary data. He plans on heading back into the laboratory within the next several weeks once most of his students have returned from the summer holiday.
However, Kuhn and fellow scientist Lawrence Duffy have set their sights set beyond just research. Duffy, the director of UAF’s Alaska Basic Neuroscience Program, sees the university’s research into blueberries as having three goals: to better understand how the brain works, to translate that information to the community so that they can live healthier, and to provide a means of countering combat-related injuries.
Currently, the university is preparing to submit for a grant through the National Institute of Health’s Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats program because, according to Duffy, blueberries are just that important. He stressed that current combat treatments handle only the body and not the brain, and that a combinational therapy would be more effective in ensuring the survival of wounded soldiers in combat, especially if those wounds were due to chemical warfare.
At the state level, Duffy intends to link the basic sciences to local businesses and individuals in order to create a more diversified economy in Alaska. Kuhn agrees with Duffy’s sentiments and stressed that blueberries are a natural resource and should be treated as such. He believes that the university should not be just about science, but also about commercialization. “We have a huge amount of them (blueberries) in Alaska, but we aren’t using them,” he said, stressing that Alaskans have an opportunity to not only increase the health of themselves and the nation, but also to make a profit doing so.
Duffy said that the university already has an industrial-sized oven that would be perfect for turning raw blueberries into blueberry flakes. Kuhn feels that the community is ready and willing to harvest the fruit, but that the infrastructure is lacking. He believes that the Alaska blueberries score on the ORAC is indicative of its marketability and uniqueness among nutraceutical products (foods that provide medicinal benefits). And, as Kuhn said, “if it’s unique, that gives you a huge commercial opportunity.”