Study links key nutrients to slower brain aging

Brain Mental Health Boost Concept

A new study highlights the crucial role of specific nutrients in the Mediterranean diet in promoting brain health and slowing cognitive decline, providing a foundation for future nutritional interventions.

Participants whose brains aged more slowly had a nutritional profile similar to that of the Mediterranean diet.

Scientists have done extensive research on the brain to promote healthier aging. While there is a lot of knowledge about risk factors that accelerate brain aging, there is less understanding of how to prevent cognitive decline.

There is evidence that diet matters, and a new study was published May 21 in the journal Nature agingfrom the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) further details how specific nutrients can play a crucial role in healthy brain aging.

The team of scientists, led by Aron Barbey, director of the Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior, with Jisheng Wu, a doctoral student at Nebraska, and Christopher Zwilling, a research scientist at UIUC, conducted the multimodal study – which represents the state of the art business combined -the-art innovations in neuroscience and nutritional sciences – and identified a specific nutritional profile in participants who performed better cognitively.

Study design and findings

The cross-sectional study included 100 cognitively healthy participants, aged 65-75 years. These participants completed a questionnaire with demographic information, body measurements and physical activity. Blood plasma was collected after a fasting period to analyze nutrient biomarkers. Participants also underwent cognitive assessments and MRI scans. The efforts revealed two types of brain aging among participants: accelerated and slower than expected. Those with slower brain aging had a distinct nutritional profile.

Aron Barbey and Jisheng Wu

Lead researcher Aron Barbey, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with doctoral student Jisheng Wu. Credit: Craig Chandler/University Communications and Marketing/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The beneficial blood nutrient biomarkers were a combination of fatty acids (vaccenic acid, gondoic acid, alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, eicosadienic acid, and lignoceric acid); antioxidants and carotenoids, including cis-lutein, trans-lutein and zeaxanthin; two forms of vitamin E and choline. This profile is correlated with nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet, and research has previously linked it to healthy brain aging.

“We investigated specific biomarkers for nutrients, such as fat pickles profiles that are known in nutritional science to potentially offer health benefits. This is consistent with the extensive body of research in this area demonstrating the positive health effects of the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes foods rich in these beneficial nutrients,” said Barbey, Mildred Francis Thompson Professor of Psychology. “The current study identifies certain nutrient biomarker patterns that show promise and have beneficial associations with measures of cognitive performance and brain health.”

Christopher Zwilling

Christopher Zwilling is a research scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Barbey noted that previous research on diet and brain aging has largely relied on food frequency questionnaires, which rely on participants’ own recall. This study is one of the first and largest to combine brain imaging, blood biomarkers, and validated cognitive assessments.

“The unique aspect of our study lies in its comprehensive approach, integrating data on nutrition, cognitive function and brain imaging,” Barbey said. “This allows us to gain a more robust understanding of the relationship between these factors. We go beyond just measuring cognitive performance with traditional neuropsychological tests. Instead, we simultaneously investigate brain structure, function and metabolism, demonstrating a direct link between these brain properties and cognitive skills. Furthermore, we show that these brain properties are directly linked to diet and nutrition, as evidenced by the patterns observed in nutrient biomarkers.”

Future research and implications

The researchers will continue to investigate this nutritional profile as it is linked to healthy brain aging. Barbey said it is possible in the future that the findings will help develop therapies and interventions to promote brain health.

“An important next step is to conduct randomized controlled trials. In these studies, we will isolate specific nutrients that have beneficial associations with cognitive function and brain health and deliver them in the form of nutraceuticals,” Barbey said. “This will allow us to definitively assess whether increasing levels of these specific nutritional profiles reliably leads to improvements in cognitive test performance and measures of brain structure, function and metabolism.”

Barbey is also co-editor of a forthcoming special collection for the Journal of Nutrition, “Nutrition and the Brain – Exploring Pathways to Optimal Brain Health Through Nutrition,” which is currently inviting submissions for consideration, and articles will be published next year.

“There is tremendous scientific and medical interest in understanding the profound impact of diet on brain health,” Barbey said. “Recognizing this, the National Institutes of Health recently launched a ten-year strategic plan to significantly accelerate nutrition research. Our work ties directly into this critical initiative, with the aim of contributing valuable insights into how dietary patterns influence brain health and cognitive function.”

Reference: “Exploring Nutritional Biomarkers of Healthy Brain Aging: A Multimodal Brain Imaging Study” by Christopher E. Zwilling, Jisheng Wu and Aron K. Barbey, May 21, 2024, npj Aging.
DOI: 10.1038/s41514-024-00150-8

The study was funded by Abbott Nutrition.

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