Study on Strawberries and Brain Health Bears Fruit

by Liz Neporent
November 13, 2023 at 9:05 AM UTC

Strawberries could boost brain health by improving memory and mood, a recent study focused on cognitive decline suggests.

Clinical Relevance: Further evidence for diet’s role in cognitive health

  • A study by Cincinnati researchers reveals strawberries’ potential in enhancing memory and reducing depressive symptoms.
  • The fruit’s benefits could come from anthocyanins, antioxidant compounds known for their anti-inflammatory effects.
  • The researchers concluded that strawberries could provide a simple, affordable and delicious way to maintain cognition in the long term, especially in individuals at risk of dementia due to insulin resistance. 

Strawberries may be more than just a sweet summer treat. A recent study published in the journal, Nutrients by a team of Cincinnati-based researchers indicates they could be a vital ingredient in preserving cognitive health.

A Berry-Focused Approach

The study enrolled 37 overweight participants, aged between 50 and 70 years. All participants were diagnosed with insulin resistance and subjective cognitive decline, conditions that often precede dementia. Researchers divided the participants into two groups. One group received a daily dose of 24 grams of freeze-dried strawberry powder, equivalent to two cups of fresh strawberries. The other group consumed a daily placebo with a similar calorie count. All of the subjects were asked to abstain from eating any real berries over the course of the 12 week trial. 

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The strawberry group showed notable improvement in memory, particularly memory processing. They had a significant decrease in memory interference, a factor crucial for memory retention and retrieval. And they excelled at word recall based on previously learned words without confusion. 

Participants who ate strawberry equivalent also experienced a sizable reduction in depression. On basic depression inventory tools, their scores dropped, indicating less severity in depressive symptoms. This finding is particularly meaningful as depression is a common precursor to cognitive decline. 

While not statistically significant, there was a trend suggesting improvement in executive functions, such as problem-solving and planning, in the strawberry group. However, despite the known link between insulin resistance and cognitive decline, the study found no benefits in metabolic parameters like blood glucose and insulin levels. The researchers speculated that the cognitive benefits of strawberries might operate through different mechanisms, possibly unrelated to metabolic changes. 

Nature’s Colorful Brain Protectors

“Both strawberries and blueberries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins, which have been implicated in a variety of berry health benefits such as metabolic and cognitive enhancements,” said a statement about the study from Robert Krikorian, professor emeritus in the UC College of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience. Krikorian has previously studied the health effects of blueberries.

The anthocyanins Krikorian referred to are naturally occurring pigments found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. These include berries, red grapes, red cabbage, eggplants, and black currants. Known for their vivid red, purple, and blue hues, they are a member of the flavonoid family, a type of polyphenol celebrated for their potent antioxidant properties. Anthocyanins play a crucial role in protecting cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals, the unstable molecules that cause cellular damage. 

Beyond their antioxidant capacity, anthocyanins are recognized for their considerable anti-inflammatory effects as well. They potentially reduce inflammation by hindering the production of inflammatory chemicals like cytokines and enzymes.

Additionally, anthocyanin compounds have been linked to numerous other health benefits. Studies suggest they improve cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and enhance blood vessel function for better cardiovascular health. Other studies suggest that they inhibit the growth of cancer cells and induce apoptosis in various cancer types. 

A Tasty Prescription

Krikorian said that, while preliminary, the findings are promising. They add to the growing body of evidence supporting the role of diet in maintaining brain health during the aging process. Strawberries in particular could provide a simple, affordable and delicious way to maintain cognition in the long term, especially in individuals at risk of dementia due to insulin resistance. 

“Executive abilities begin to decline in midlife and excess abdominal fat, as in insulin resistance and obesity, will tend to increase inflammation, including in the brain,” he explained. “So, one might consider that our middle-aged, overweight, prediabetic sample had higher levels of inflammation that contributed to at least mild impairment of executive abilities. Accordingly, the beneficial effects we observed might be related to moderation of inflammation in the strawberry group.”

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