As a developmental cognitive neuroscientist, Carol Cheatham, PhD, is passionate about the hippocampus, the area of the brain that plays an essential role in the formation, organization, and storage of memories.
Cheatham is an associate professor of Psychology at UNC Chapel Hill and a member of the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute’s (NRI) Nutrition and Brain Development team. In her lab on the NC Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, she combines behavioral and electrophysiological approaches to research the brain development of infants, toddlers, and young children. She specifically investigates the role of fatty acids and nutrients like choline, iron, and zinc on memory, attention, and other related cognitive abilities. In the fall of 2011, she will begin the B.E.R.R.Y Study, which stands for Blueberries: Exciting Research Relevant to You. This study will expand her research to include people 70 to 80 years old who are just at the beginning of mild cognitive decline.
Mild cognitive decline, Cheatham explained, is “when you are having more serious memory lapses than just a senior moment.” Although the memory lapses may not inhibit a person’s daily life, they are noticeable to the individual and family and friends. The study, which is open to anyone who can travel to the NCRC, will involve the daily consumption of a freeze dried blueberry powder for six months. Cheatham will track the effect on the participant’s cognitive abilities.
Blueberries are being studied as a dietary supplement in relation to cognitive abilities because they are high in anthocyanins, which is the phytochemical responsible for their blue color. Anthocyanins are antioxidants and associated with improved memory function as well as with the prevention of some cancers and other diseases. Cheatham’s study aims to further define the link between anthocyanins and human cognition.
Through the study, Cheatham anticipates the identification of biomarkers. “Cognition might change, but there may be some biomarkers, something in their blood, where we’ll see the change more definitively,” Cheatham said. “At the same time, we will be looking at some genetic components that may be important to identify for a future study.”
Enrollment for the study begins in January 2012. Cheatham expects that she and her staff will screen at least 300 people and enroll 132 who will form three groups of 44: the study group that will add the blueberry powder to their diet; a placebo group that will add a similar but non-blueberry powder to their diet; and a reference group that will be followed throughout the study as a lifestyle baseline.
The initial screening will involve several tests to determine a person’s cognitive ability including a Mini-Mental Status Exam, a 30-point questionnaire also known as a Folstein test designed to identify the level of a person’s cognitive impairment. Those accepted into the study will be asked about their diet, have their weight and physical measurements taken as well as answer demographic information and complete an IQ test. Cheatham will also lead them through a battery of cognitive testing using her electrophysiological equipment. Study participants will wear a sensor net on their head while taking computerized tests that measure their ability to follow and anticipate sequences, remember shapes and pictures, and analyze information.
Those enrolled in the study will next undergo a three week diet “wash-out period” where they will not eat berries or cruciferous vegetables like broccoli. At the end of the three week period, they will return to Cheatham’s lab for some additional cognitive testing and be given the powder supplement to add to their diet. Monthly, individuals in the study will return to the lab, review their dietary intake, and receive additional powder. After the sixth month, enrollees will retake the cognitive tests administered at the beginning of the study. Comparing the first and final tests will provide Cheatham with data to determine if the ingestion of the blueberry powder had any effect on the participants’ cognitive abilities.
People in the study will be compensated. The grant also includes funds for mileage so that Cheatham’s staff can travel, when necessary, to visit people enrolled in the study.
For Cheatham, the study serves a dual role. “This is the other end of the spectrum,” she said. “I work on how the hippocampus develops and how it supports cognitive development. In the elderly, it is actually shrinking. So it’s the downward decline of the same thing that fascinates me in development. I want to see how it works at the other end of the spectrum.”
The study funded a new position. Cheatham recently hired postdoctoral researcher Sheau Ching Chai, PhD, to work with her on the study. Chai graduated from Florida State University where she investigated dried apples and plums and their affect on the health of older women.
The grant also allows Cheatham to collaborate with colleagues at the NCRC. Mary Ann Lila, PhD, and Penelope Perkins-Veazie, PhD, both with the NC State University Plants for Human Health Institute, have contributed to identifying the type of blueberry to use for the study. Mihai Niculescu, PhD, UNC Chapel Hill assistant professor in the department of nutrition at the NRI, will run the genetic tests for the study.
“This study is one of the first studies where people were getting together from across campus,” Cheatham said. “It takes everyone to do this. It’s not something any one lab can do. That’s the exciting thing about this campus is that we work together, and we can produce work that can’t be produced any other place because we have each other.”