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by HeJee Yoon, Rose Liu

art by Marcus Tian

Cooking Time: Incorporate into daily life for long-term benefits

Serving Size: A brain-boosting scoop of MIND-ful magic

About the Recipe

If there were a recipe for eternal youth, balancing the grace of physical health and timeless wisdom, would you take it? Yes, youth is lifting your sofa without back pain and freely smiling without crinkles forming around your eyes. But, youth is also cognitive efficiency, being able to remember what you did 12 days, 12 weeks, and even 12 years ago with relative ease. This is the greatest wish for nearly six million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease [1]. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder associated with a decline in memory and reasoning. The condition is typically characterized by beta-amyloid plaques and irregular tau proteins. Beta-amyloid plaques are proteins that accumulate and disrupt the lines of communication between brain cells while irregular tau proteins disrupt our neurons’ structural support [1]. The dysfunction caused by the combination of beta-amyloid plaques and irregular tau proteins serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving the vitality of our brains [2]

In contemplating the preservation of our brains, the concept of an “elixir of life,” a legendary substance said to grant immortality, has not only captured the attention of fantasy novelists but also neuroscientists. In our quest for such a remarkable concoction, science and medicine have made significant strides in understanding cognitive decline, providing hope for a future where longevity extends to the vibrant youth of our minds. To our relief, the present studies suggest that you do not need to travel to Mount Olympus or Atlantis to find this precious elixir of life. In fact, you may have its ingredients tucked away in your kitchen cupboards.

Berries, beans, fish, olive oil, and nuts: sound familiar? Not only are these your average household ingredients; these foods are also the key components of the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet—more frequently referred to as the MIND diet [3]. Developed by Martha Clare Morris, a professor of epidemiology at Rush University, the MIND diet incorporates two diets associated with brain protection and places an emphasis on an increased intake of natural plant-based foods and a decreased consumption of animal products and saturated fat [4].

The first component of this integrative diet is the Mediterranean diet. Popularized around the 1960s, the Mediterranean diet is largely inspired by eating practices in Greece and Italy that feature low amounts of saturated fats and high amounts of vegetable oils [5]. This diet has been associated with slowing the age-related decline of cognition by preventing the hippocampus, a region in the brain associated with memory recall and consolidation, from deteriorating at an irregularly rapid pace [6]. Additionally, this diet is commonly associated with a decrease in beta-amyloid accumulation, the same agent that causes disruptions in neuronal communication as seen in Alzheimer’s [7]

The other half of the MIND diet is the DASH, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, diet. Composed of low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and an overall reduction in fat consumption, this diet specifically targets high blood pressure [8]. The DASH diet addresses overall inflammation in the body, typically caused by germs, injuries, or harmful chemicals that can lead to damaged cells [9]. This overall inflammation can interact with our brain’s immune system, generating a harmful response known as neuroinflammation [10, 11]. While both components of the MIND diet are effective in their own ways, Dr. Morris and her colleagues found that a combination of the two exhibited the strongest association with slowing cognitive decline [4]. Let us explore this MIND diet in our efforts to find an elixir of cognitive youth. Allow me to welcome you on a culinary journey exploring a potential recipe. 

Ingredients List: 

  1. Berries – Berry Berry Necess-erry 

Open up a fresh carton of strawberries, blackberries, or blueberries—choose blueberries for the best results [12]. Aside from inarguably being the best kind of fruit, berries are the stars of the antioxidative world. 

Due to evolutionary pressure, berries developed ways to survive environmental stresses like oxygen. But what’s wrong with oxygen? Isn’t oxygen THE supporter of life? Oxygen is great—in moderation. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are molecules with at least one oxygen atom and at least one unpaired electron [13]. This form of oxygen is associated with irreparable cell damage known as oxidative stress [13]. As explored by Harraan, aging is innately associated with oxidative damage to our macromolecules [14]. Our brain is a large consumer of oxygen and is composed of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are easily oxidized, making it incredibly susceptible to oxidative stress [14, 15]. While the brain has innate systems to combat this oxidative stress, what happens when this system is already working overtime? 

This is where berries come in handy. Berries can combat ROS with their antioxidative properties, such as their high concentration of an important compound called polyphenol [16]. Polyphenols are a class of compounds with a unique structure that counteracts oxidizing substances and scavenges for unstable oxygen atoms that have the potential to damage important molecules like DNA and proteins [17, 18]. Once found, the polyphenol compound can accept the unpaired electron from oxygen, thereby breaking the toxic oxidative chain reaction [17]. The polyphenol in berries is shown to improve cardiovascular health, thereby increasing blood flow to the brain and allowing it to receive proper amounts of nutrients and oxygen [19]

Researchers studied more direct effects of a berry-heavy diet using animal models. Casadesus and her colleagues studied the behavioral effects of a blueberry diet on aging rats [20]. She discovered that the blueberry diet increased hippocampal neuroplasticity and improved spatial memory, suggesting that blueberries can help reduce the cognitive rigidity seen in Alzheimer’s disease that inhibits the brain from forming new neural connections and learning new information. In addition, the blueberry diet prompted growth factors that mediate neurogenesis, the growth of new neural tissue [20]. In-vitro studies—experiments taking place with cells grown in test tubes or dishes—support the claim developed in behavioral research studies. The incorporation of a blueberry diet showed neuroprotective effects against beta-amyloid toxicity in rat hippocampal cells and slowed down the process of neuronal loss [21]

To reduce oxidative stress and promote opportunities for our brain to grow and adapt, add 1 cup of your favorite kind of berry. Don’t worry too much about how ripe they are—polyphenol content does not change drastically throughout the fruit maturity process [22]

  1. Fish – The Power of DHA

In the quest for a fountain of youth, maybe we should refrain from focusing so much on the twinkling water in the fountain, but instead on the fish that may be swimming within it. Fish contain a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) [23]. DHA is found in our brains naturally and is involved with making new brain cells,

protecting the brain, and allowing our brain cells to communicate with one another [23]. To simply sum up its role, DHAs increase the amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule involved in neuroplastic changes in learning, memory, and neuronal protection [24]. Consider BDNF as our very own brain guardian, always looking out for our brain by making sure that our neurons can make connections with new ones, allowing us to learn new things, and helping to ensure that our neurons survive. Our vigilant guardian typically resides in the hippocampus, where it is also most commonly produced [25]. BDNF is most commonly found in the entorhinal cortex, a region crucial for learning and relaying information between the hippocampus and cortical regions, therefore playing an important role in the development of sensory and emotional relationships with our memories. [10]

In Alzheimer’s, BDNF levels decrease sharply, leaving our brains unprotected from neurotoxic agents [15]. To give the brain the protective boost it needs, the MIND diet suggests an increase in DHA intake through fish. DHA increases BDNF through the upregulation of transcription factors. The expression of our genes is largely determined by transcription factors that decide whether to turn on or off the expression of certain parts of our deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DHA modulates transcription factors that are related to the expression of BDNF and increases their production using DHA metabolites like neuroprotectin D1 [15]

Beyond producing more guardians, DHA continues to protect our brain by changing the structure of our fortress—the membrane surrounding our neurons [23]. It has been proposed that the membranes of all cells, including neurons, are composed of lipid rafts, analogous to a fluid river with proteins and lipids that float freely within and are crucial for regulating membrane function in eukaryotic cells [26]. These lipid rafts also determine the structural organization of the membrane. Supplementation of DHA allows for omega-3 fatty acids to become a part of this river, increasing its fluidity. This property is due to DHA’s structure, which is composed of long, polyunsaturated acyl chains that increase flexibility [15]. The flexibility of the membrane is important for many reasons. One, it allows for better communication from neuron to neuron. Neurons use chemical messengers called neurotransmitters to talk to each other. In order for a neurotransmitter to get to another neuron, it needs to fuse with the neuron’s cell membrane. The fluidity of the membrane allows for this process to occur more efficiently, enhancing the activity of receptors involved in pathways related to neuroplasticity—like the release of glutamate [27]. In addition, the flexibility of the membrane is important for dynamic structural changes in the neuron, like long-term potentiation, which is essential for strong and long-lasting memory [28] 

Thankfully, there’s a lot of options to choose from. Salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, and mackerel make excellent choices for this recipe. 

  1. Olive Oil – The Magic Syrup 

Olive oil, or the “liquid gold of the Mediterranean,” is not just a magical dressing that elevates your salad exponentially; it also adds a touch of magic to our cognitive revitalization recipe. For the best results, grab a nearby bottle of extra virgin olive oil, rich in a monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) called oleic acid [29]. Oleic acid’s job is to stop the cyclooxygenase pathway (COX) in its tracks before it takes our brain off course [30]. This tumultuous pathway begins with COX-2 enzymes that convert a substance called arachidonic acid into prostaglandins, lipid compounds that regulate inflammation [30, 31]. Prostaglandins can also cause inflammation by activating microglia, immune cells in our brain that react to possible dangers by increasing inflammation [32]. Of course, this pathway exists for a reason; without COX pathways we would bleed non stop after getting a papercut and our injuries would feel a lot more painful [31]

The issue arises when this pathway is overactive. This is the case for individuals with Alzheimer’s, whose COX-2 pathways are often significantly upregulated, increasing molecular quantities beyond those necessary for the pathway to function in healthy individuals [33]. As aforementioned, neuroinflammation is a huge problem because it increases our susceptibility to reactive oxygen species, thereby inducing oxidative stress. Prostaglandins also increase the blood brain barrier permeability, essentially allowing harmful substances to enter our brain with ease [34]. Oleic acid targets this by stopping COX-2 enzymes, reducing the creation of prostaglandins [35]. Fewer prostaglandins leads to a reduced activation of microglia and other components that would otherwise increase inflammation. 

Additional Ingredients: Whole grains, green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, poultry 

Do Not Include in this Recipe: 

We know that a little something sweet is always welcome in a recipe, but make sure that you’re not including too many high-sugar ingredients. This culinary masterpiece would work best if we left them out. Sugar, or glucose, is necessary for the production of energy in our body. In fact, the brain accounts for about 20 percent of our glucose-derived energy, making it the largest glucose-consuming organ in our body [36]

However, too much sugar intake, usually in the form of candies, pastries, and sweetened drinks, increases sugar levels in our bloodstream. Consider our bloodstream as a waterway that connects the structures and organs in our body, among these being our brain. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), neuroscientists have found that people who drink more sugary beverages had poorer memory performance and reduced brain volume in the hippocampus, implicating excess sugar as an agent that causes traffic jams in our nervous system [37]

In more extreme cases with continuous sugar intake or pre-existing conditions that involve issues with blood sugar levels, high sugar can stick to other proteins and overall stiffen the arteries, leading to a condition known as atherosclerosis [38]. The blockage of the blood pathway by plaques means our brains aren’t getting the oxygen and nutrients they need. 

Chef’s Tips: 

Before you tie your aprons and turn your stove on, allow me to give you some advice about this brain-boosting recipe! While it’s tempting to think that you could substitute many of these ingredients for supplements that contain the corresponding active ingredients, supplements cannot fully replace a healthy diet [39].  

This recipe is in no way a panacea for cognitive decline, but its ingredients are anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, and promote healthy brain function, which is a wonderful step to take towards reducing cognitive decline. In a disease as complex as Alzheimer’s, with causes ranging from genetic influences to unknown environmental factors, the MIND diet offers a glimpse of hope toward ways we can take charge of our own health. 

So, I ask again: If there were a recipe for eternal youth, would you take it? Sure, it would be wonderful to always have the energy and vitality of a twenty-something-year-old, but let’s not forget the true essence of living. This recipe isn’t just about preserving youth: it’s about holding onto our brain’s unique ability to enrich our lives with the gift of learning and remembering. It’s about preserving the 3-pound biochemical matrix that allows us to fully experience our lives, remembering the beautiful places, souls, and moments that make us want us to live eternally.

Now, with an open mind and a fresh basket of ingredients, embark on this culinary journey. Here’s a “Bon appétit” to delicious meals and healthy brains! 


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