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How thyme, sweet potatoes boost brainpower

By Chukwuma Muanya, Assistant Editor (Head Insight Team, Science & Technology) |   14 December 2015   |   11:00 pm  

Thyme… New research reveals how a substance present in thyme and parsley – apigenin – triggers formation of human brain cells and boosts connections between them. PHOTO CREDIT: GOOGLE.COM/SEARCH

Compiled by Chukwuma Muanya, Assistant Editor (Head Insight Team, Science & Technology) with agency reports<strong

Can eating meals cooked with thyme and sweet potatoes boost brain power?

New research reveals how a substance present in thyme and parsley – apigenin – triggers formation of human brain cells and boosts connections between them.

Researchers found the flavonoid apigenin – found in parsley, thyme and other plants and herbs – triggered the formation of human brain cells and strengthened their connections.

Also, researchers suggest carbohydrate consumption, particularly in the form of starch, was critical for the extraordinary development of the brain over the past million years.

They say starches would have been readily available to ancestral human populations in the form of potatoes as well as in seeds, some fruit and nuts.

Commonly called sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas belongs to the plant family Convolvulaceae. In Nigeria, it is called edia-makara in Anaang, dankai in Berom, iyan-ebo in Edo, bia mbakara in Efik, ba-fadamee in Hausa, ediam-umani in Ibibio, ji-bekee or nduku in Ibo, beke buru in Ijo-Izon, dangali in Kanuri, dangura in Mambila, duku in Nupe, atsaka in Tiv, imitata or ole-oyinbo in Urhobo, anamo or odukun in Yoruba.

Lead author Stevens Rehen, of the D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), and colleagues publish their findings in the journal Advances in Regenerative Biology.

The team says their findings suggest apigenin – also found in red pepper, chamomile and many other plants and herbs – shows promise as a treatment for numerous neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s diseases and schizophrenia.

Meanwhile, the new study combines archaeological, anthropological, genetic, physiological and anatomical data to argue that carbohydrate consumption was key in the human brain’s evolution.

Up until now there has been a heavy focus on the role of animal protein and cooking in the development of the human brain over the last two million years and the importance of starch rich plant foods has been largely overlooked.

Dr. Karen Hardy and her team at the Autonomous University of Barcelona say that there are five crucial reasons why a starch-rich diet was critical in human development.

The study was published in The Quarterly Review of Biology.

Previous animal studies have shown that substances from the same flavonoid group as apigenin may benefit memory and learning, and other research has demonstrated that flavonoids have the potential to preserve and boost brain function.

For this latest study, Rehen and colleagues set out to gain a better understanding of how apigenin affects human brain cells or neurons.

The team applied apigenin to human stem cells – cells that have the ability to develop into different cell types – in a laboratory dish.

They found that after 25 days, these stem cells transformed into neurons – an effect the researchers say was not seen in the absence of apigenin.

What is more, the researchers found that the connections that developed between the newly formed neurons – known as synapses – were stronger and more sophisticated. “Strong connections between neurons are crucial for good brain function, memory consolidations and learning,” notes Rehen.

Further investigation revealed that apigenin boosts neuron formation and connections by binding to estrogen receptors (ERs), which influences the development, progression, function and plasticity of the nervous system.

While studies have shown the hormone estrogen may delay development of Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression and Parkinson’s, among other neurodegenerative conditions, Rehen and colleagues note the use of estrogen therapy is hampered by the risks of tumor growth and cardiovascular problems it poses.

However, the team says their findings suggest apigenin could offer a promising future treatment alternative for a number of neurodegenerative disorders.

“An alternative approach would be to mimic estrogenic-mediated positive effects by modulating specific ERs with other estrogenic compounds, such as some flavonoids classified as selective ER modulators (SERMs),” they explain.

In addition, Rehen says their study suggests the possibility of a simple brain-boosting strategy we can all adopt: “… Flavonoids are present at high amounts in some foods and we can speculate that a diet rich in flavonoids may influence the formation of neurons and the way they communicate within the brain.”

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