Blueberries could help heal brain injuries

Danette Dooley
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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 works with Newfoundland blueberries in his laboratory at Memorial University’s school of pharmacy. — Photo courtesy of Chris Hammond, Marketing and Communications, MUN

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.”

Organizations: Canadian Nutrition Society

Geographic location: United States

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Recent comments

  • Glenys
    August 10, 2014 - 04:19

    I know blueberries are good for you.Can you too many or can we eat to our heart's content?

    • Dr. John Weber
      August 21, 2014 - 17:41

      Glenys, for the most part you can eat blueberries, and some other berries to your heart's content. However, admittedly in some people if you eat say a few or several cups in one sitting, it could upset your stomach, especially if they are the only things you are eating.

  • Melissa Cronin
    August 05, 2014 - 21:33

    Dr. Weber. Just to clarify: are you recommending for those who have suffered a moderate to severe TBI to take caution as to how many blueberries they eat? When you say moderate to severe, are you referring to the initial injury or the long term consequences? For instance, if someone is diagnosed with a mild TBI that does not mean the consequences are mild. Thank you.

    • Dr. John Weber
      August 20, 2014 - 23:17

      Melissa, no, I am not saying that individuals with a moderate or severe TBI need to take caution. These individuals should eat a lot of blueberries as well. What I am suggesting is that even if you have high levels of antioxidants in the brain due to consumption of berries and you do suffer a moderate to severe injury, this likely won't be enough to combat the injury at the time, so yes I'm talking about the initial injury. I think that with TBIs that are clinically classified as mild then having high antioxidants in the brain could be helpful at reducing consequences of the injury. I agree that the consequences of a 'mild TBI' may not be mild for the individual, but I do think that eating berries could help in long-term recovery in some individuals, along with other therapies

  • Gerry
    August 05, 2014 - 07:45

    Dr. Weber; You may be just the man we all need to inject what's needed into our medical system. ie "our food is our medicine". When you set up your practice, hopefully in Newfoundland, let your title reflect your passion. Dr. Weber Health Practitioner and MD. Keep up the good work...

    • Dr. John Weber
      August 21, 2014 - 17:49

      Gerry, just to be clear, I am already here in Newfoundland at Memorial University, but I am not a physician. I am a scientist with a Ph.D. However, I do certainly believe that food can be our medicine