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Blackcurrants for the Brain

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Blackcurrants May Improve Cognitive Function

When it comes to Thanksgiving, pie is king of desserts. Though apple may hold a traditional place on your Thanksgiving table, it may be the year to get creative with your fruit filling and try a blackcurrant pie. New research from New Zealand and the UK suggests this oft-forgotten fruit may pack benefits for your mood and brain.

In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study, 36 young adults attended three separate study visits. On each visit, participants gave blood samples; completed cognitive and mood assessments, which included various computer-based tasks; and then drank one of three drinks: blackcurrant juice, a drink made with blackcurrant powder, or a placebo. Both blackcurrant beverages contained varying amount of different polyphenols while the placebo was polyphenol-free. An hour after drinking the beverage, participants repeated the blood analysis and cognitive and mood assessments.

Both blackcurrant drinks showed benefits to mood and brain, including improvements in attention, accuracy and reaction time on mental tasks. However, the effects of the two drinks were slightly different, likely due to the variance in polyphenols between the two beverages. The blackcurrant powder contained more anthocyanins than the juice, while the juice packed more total polyphenols than the powder. Researchers attribute much of cognitive benefit to the anthocyanins in blackcurrants, but they were not the only compounds at play.

As revealed by blood analysis, one of the biggest differences between the two drinks’ effects was the juice’s ability to inhibit 96% of activity of MAO-B enzymes. These enzymes help control the levels of neurotransmitters in the central nervous system by breaking them down when there is an excess. High levels of MAO-B have been linked to depression and to Parkinson’s disease, and MAO-B inhibitors are used in the treatments of these diseases. Researchers suspect compounds other than anthocyanins may be responsible for this observed effect since it only occurred after drinking the juice.

Thanksgiving pie is not the only way to add blackcurrants to your diet. Enjoy this berry all year round in jams, compotes, muffins and sorbets. Blackcurrants can also be used to make flavorful sauces to accompany poultry or fish. The berry itself is a bit tart, so it is best used in slightly-sweetened recipes.

BONUS: Anthocyanin-packed blueberries may also brighten your mood. Young adults who ate about one and a half cups of blueberries scored 15% higher on a mood test five hours later. 

Published November 1, 2015

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