Blueberries could help heal brain injuries

Published on August 5, 2014
Dr. John Weber works with Newfoundland blueberries in his laboratory at Memorial University’s school of pharmacy. — Photo courtesy of Chris Hammond, Marketing and Communications, MUN

It’s been said you can have too much of a good thing. But a researcher at Memorial University’s school of pharmacy says nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to blueberries and other antioxidant-rich fruit found in abundance in this province.

Dr. John Weber and his research team believe berry extracts may be beneficial, not only for cardiovascular health, but to help reduce the effects of some diseases and help people recover from traumatic brain injury.

Weber has been studying the effect berry extract could play in certain diseases.

During a recent telephone interview, he explained his research, saying that glutamate is the major neurotransmitter in the brain and is needed for normal brain processes.

However, glutamate levels may increase in the brain as a result of diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

Glutamate is also released rapidly after people suffer traumatic brain injury, Weber said.

“We know that if we add glutamate to cells it does kill a lot of them, but what we found, remarkably, is that if you add various chemical extracts (like those found in berries) to the cells in the presence of glutamate, it protects them dramatically.”

While researchers can measure how much chemicals like antioxidants get into the blood in humans, it’s not possible to determine how much goes directly to the brain, Weber said.

Studies have been conducted, however, in animals and show that compounds like antioxidants are indeed getting into the brain. Therefore, Weber said, the more berries you eat, the better the brain will be protected if a stroke or traumatic brain injury occurs.

“Our next experiment is to try, at the animal level, what happens if we give … the equivalent of one cup of blueberries — how much of it gets into the blood and how much into the brain? Then we can try to determine how much a human would need to get a certain amount into the brain … and how long those antioxidants stay in the brain.”

If that information was available, Weber said, researchers could recommend how much berries people should eat daily.

In an article published in Memorial University’s Gazette newspaper, Weber likened consuming adequate amounts of antioxidant-rich berries to purchasing extra home insurance. It’s like investing in extra protection in case an accident should occur, he said.

Weber cautions, however, that although there is evidence it may be helpful to concern certain antioxidant chemicals — like those found in berries — after a brain injury, the extracts may not help people whose brain has suffered moderate or severe injury.

Still, he says, the extracts may help over the long term in the recovery process.

And berry leaves have even more antioxidants than the fruit, he said.

“We can’t get fresh berries all year long, but maybe you could make a tea out of (the leaves) or a supplement or an abstract. … That may be the way to go throughout the winter. And I think the leaves have been really overlooked.”

A native of the United States, Weber has been working at the school of pharmacy since 2006. He presented his research at the Canadian Nutrition Society’s annual general meeting in St. John’s in June.

He’s gotten feedback about the research and has been contacted by people interested in working in his lab to help further his studies.

While more work needs to be done to determine the protective benefits of berries, Weber said the tiny fruit are one of the most nutritious foods you can eat.

“You cannot go wrong with eating berries. They are very good for you. The only bad thing I can think about is they may stain your clothes.”