Nav: Home

Study links nutrients in blood to better brain connectivity, cognition in older adults

December 19, 2018

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A new study links higher levels of several key nutrients in the blood with more efficient brain connectivity and performance on cognitive tests in older adults.

The study, reported in the journal NeuroImage, looked at 32 key nutrients in the Mediterranean diet, which previous research has shown is associated with better brain function in aging. It included 116 healthy adults 65-75 years of age.

"We wanted to investigate whether diet and nutrition predict cognitive performance in healthy older adults," said University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Christopher Zwilling, who led the study with U. of I. psychology professor Aron Barbey in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

The analysis linked specific patterns of a handful of nutrient biomarkers in the blood to better brain health and cognition. The nutrient patterns included omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in fish, walnuts and Brussels sprouts; omega-6 fatty acids, found in flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts and pistachios; lycopene, a vivid red pigment in tomatoes, watermelon and a few other fruits and vegetables; alpha- and beta-carotenoids, which give sweet potatoes and carrots their characteristic orange color; and vitamins B and D.

The researchers relied on some of the most rigorous methods available for examining nutrient intake and brain health, Barbey said. Rather than asking participants to answer food-intake surveys, which require the accurate recall of what and how much participants ate, the team looked for patterns of nutrient "biomarkers" in the blood. The team also used functional magnetic resonance imaging to carefully evaluate the efficiency with which various brain networks performed.

"The basic question we were asking was whether diet and nutrition are associated with healthy brain aging," Barbey said. "And instead of inferring brain health from a cognitive test, we directly examined the brain using high-resolution brain imaging."

Functional MRIs can indicate the efficiency of individual brain networks, he said.

"Efficiency has to do with how information is communicated within the network," Barbey said. "We looked at 'local efficiency' - how well information is shared within a spatially confined set of brain regions - and also 'global efficiency,' which reflects how many steps are required to transfer information from any one region to any other region in the network.

"If your network is more efficiently configured, then it should be easier, on average, to access relevant information and the task should take you less time," he said.

Participants also completed several cognitive tests.

The analysis found a robust link between higher levels of several nutrient biomarkers in the blood and enhanced performance on specific cognitive tests. These nutrients, which appeared to work synergistically, included omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, carotenoids, lycopene, riboflavin, folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

The analysis also revealed that a pattern of omega-3s, omega-6s and carotene was linked to better functional brain network efficiency.

Different nutrient patterns appeared to moderate the efficiency in different brain networks. For example, higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids paralleled the positive relationship between a healthy frontoparietal network and general intelligence. The frontoparietal network supports the ability to focus attention and engage in goal-directed behavior.

"Our study suggests that diet and nutrition moderate the association between network efficiency and cognitive performance," Barbey said. "This means that the strength of the association between functional brain network efficiency and cognitive performance is associated with the level of the nutrients."

To test the stability of the nutrient-biomarker patterns over time, the researchers invited 40 participants back for a second analysis roughly two years after the first tests. Similar nutrient patterns persisted in this subset of the original group.

"Because we're investigating how groups of nutrients work together, we're getting a more accurate snapshot of how the body processes these nutrients and how they can impact the brain and cognitive health," Zwilling said. "Of course, future studies are needed to affirm and extend these results."
-end-
Abbott Nutrition supported this work through the Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory at the University of Illinois, of which Barbey is an affiliate. Barbey is a professor in the Beckman Institute and an affiliate of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the U. of I. He directs the Center for Brain Plasticity, a partnership between the Beckman Institute and the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute. He also serves on the scientific advisory boards of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, U.K.; and Natrol, a vitamin and supplement producer.

Editor's notes:

To reach Christopher Zwilling, email zwillin1@illinois.edu.

To reach Aron Barbey, call 217-244-2551; email barbey@illinois.edu.

The paper "Nutrient biomarker patterns, cognitive function and fMRI measures of network efficiency in the aging brain" is available online and from the U. of I. News Bureau.

DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.12.007

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Related Brain Articles:

Study describes changes to structural brain networks after radiotherapy for brain tumors
Researchers compared the thickness of brain cortex in patients with brain tumors before and after radiation therapy was applied and found significant dose-dependent changes in the structural properties of cortical neural networks, at both the local and global level.
Blue Brain team discovers a multi-dimensional universe in brain networks
Using a sophisticated type of mathematics in a way that it has never been used before in neuroscience, a team from the Blue Brain Project has uncovered a universe of multi-dimensional geometrical structures and spaces within the networks of the brain.
New brain mapping tool produces higher resolution data during brain surgery
Researchers have developed a new device to map the brain during surgery and distinguish between healthy and diseased tissues.
Newborn baby brain scans will help scientists track brain development
Scientists have today published ground-breaking scans of newborn babies' brains which researchers from all over the world can download and use to study how the human brain develops.
New test may quickly identify mild traumatic brain injury with underlying brain damage
A new test using peripheral vision reaction time could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment of mild traumatic brain injury, often referred to as a concussion.
More Brain News and Brain Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans
More than test scores or good grades — what do kids need to prepare them for the future? This hour, guest host Manoush Zomorodi and TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, in and out of the classroom. Guests include educators Olympia Della Flora and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#534 Bacteria are Coming for Your OJ
What makes breakfast, breakfast? Well, according to every movie and TV show we've ever seen, a big glass of orange juice is basically required. But our morning grapefruit might be in danger. Why? Citrus greening, a bacteria carried by a bug, has infected 90% of the citrus groves in Florida. It's coming for your OJ. We'll talk with University of Maryland plant virologist Anne Simon about ways to stop the citrus killer, and with science writer and journalist Maryn McKenna about why throwing antibiotics at the problem is probably not the solution. Related links: A Review of the Citrus Greening...