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A Brain Is a Terrible Thing to Starve

November 20, 2000|Rosie Mestel

If you were lucky enough to be chowing down in a New Orleans eatery earlier this month, perhaps you noticed something odd about your fellow chower-downers. What was with all the scuffier-than-normal attire? And all that chatter about Purkinje cells, the limbic system and the latest and greatest in circuitry and pattern generation in the lobster stomatogastric nervous system?

That's what you get when you cram 20,000-odd neuroscientists into a city for a research meeting. Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!) For a week, the air was thick with talk about stroke, trauma, stress, pain, psychopaths, degenerative disease and death--as well as some topics more suited to levity, such as eating.

Here's some crackling news from a session called "Diet and the Brain."

* Mother was right: Eat yer breakfast! Seniors (ages 60 to 84) who got a hearty breakfast of cereal, milk and juice did better on memory tests than did those who got only water, Carol Greenwood of the University of Toronto found. The tests in question were ones in which, 15 minutes after eating, participants had to recall lists of words or information contained in a paragraph they'd just read. The effect seems to have something to do with the amount of glucose coursing through one's blood. The brain needs food, after all.

* Don't give that brain too much food though. Mark Mattson and colleagues from the National Institute on Aging fed one group of rats 30% fewer calories than another group of rats. (Underfed rats, it's been shown, live longer than ones given regular rations.) They found that the sparse diet stimulates cells to divide in a part of the brain that's crucial for memory. (But does having more cells make you smarter? Or does it just make you a fathead?)

* And if you're an older person, what you eat might matter a lot more than if you're a young, devil-may-care kind of chap. (Memory-wise, that is. All of us should be eating super-virtuous diets for other reasons, naturally, paying close attention to which fibers, fats and sugars are deemed healthful or harmful on any particular week.)

Seems that elderly dogs--beagles, specifically--are much faster learners when they're given a diet rich in antioxidants (chemicals like vitamin E), which help mop up free radicals. So reports University of Toronto's William Milgram. But antioxidants had no effect on the smarts of youthful beagles, Milgram found.

In other words, as a witty pal of mine remarked, you can teach an old dog new tricks. So there, you whippersnappers.

Modern 'Miracles'

The latest book to cross my desk is called "The Healing Powers of Vinegar . . . Nature's Most Remarkable Remedy." Vinegar, touts the book, is a "modern miracle" that can slow aging, fight headaches, suppress appetite, you name it.

Wait. I thought water was nature's most remarkable remedy. Or was it St. John's wort? Or yet urine? (In the case of a urine cure, the word "remarkable" would most certainly apply.)

Guess what? They're all miracles! Urine, we learn from a quick health book Web search, is "nature's elixir for good health," and St. John's wort is a "miracle herb" or "miracle medicine," depending on which author you believe.

Food--just plain food--is also a "miracle medicine." And water therapy is "miraculous." And tomatoes, though they don't quite qualify for miracle status in and of themselves, contain a chemical that does. (It's "lycopene: the miracle nutrient that can prevent aging, heart disease and cancer.")

By now, of course, most of us know that the word "miracle" has been devalued from meaning "a remarkable event or thing: marvel" (Webster's) to meaning "something that might be kinda healthful--but then again, maybe not." Still, we wondered if there was anything to this vinegar business.

Not much, says Susan Bowerman, registered dietitian and assistant to the director at UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition. Sure, vinegar made from grapes will contain some antioxidant chemicals that help fight heart disease and cancer--but rice vinegar and apple vinegar probably don't contain many. And no vinegar, given the small quantities we generally consume, is going to be a super-rich source, she says.

Bowerman does like vinegar though--as a fat-free way to make salads taste good. That, in itself, is remarkable.


If you have an idea for a topic, write Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail at

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