Large-Scale Human Trial Explores Blueberries and Cognitive Improvement

Large-Scale Human Trial Explores Blueberries and Cognitive Improvement

March 23, 2013

The B.E.R.R.Y Study, which stands for Blueberries: Exciting Research Relevant to You, is one of the first large-scale human trials designed to specifically explore the question of antioxidants and their effect on cognitive abilities.

The study is being led by Carol L. Cheatham, PhD, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist and an assistant professor of Psychology at UNC Chapel Hill and the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) at the NC Research Campus. Cheatham’s lab is recruiting 65 to 79 year olds who are just beginning to experience memory issues but are not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Anyone interested in enrolling or receiving additional information can visit

In previous smaller-scale studies, some in humans and others in animal models, scientists have generated data suggesting that consuming antioxidants, like the anthocyanins in blueberries, can help age-related memory loss.  Anthocyanins are the phytochemicals inside the blueberry responsible for the blue color and are associated with improved memory function as well as the prevention of some cancers and other diseases. Cheatham’s study aims to further define the link between anthocyanins and human cognition.


B.E.R.R.Y Study Details
Men and women who qualify for the study are first screened to determine their level of cognitive impairment using several standardized cognitive tests including the Montreal Cognitive Assessment and a digit-span memory test. Once accepted into the six-month B.E.R.R.Y study, participants answer dietary and demographic questions, have their weight and physical measurements taken and complete an IQ test. During monthly visits to the lab, Cheatham and her team then lead them through various cognitive tests. In one of the assessments, the participants  wear a sensor net on their head that records their brain activity while they take computerized tests that measure their ability to remember pictures and analyze information.

Participants are enrolled in one of three groups: one that adds a blueberry powder to their diet; a placebo group that adds a similar but non-blueberry powder to their diet; and a reference group followed throughout the study as a lifestyle baseline. At monthly visits, individuals in the study review their dietary intake and receive their next month’s supply of powder. At the end of the six months, they retake the initial cognitive tests. Comparing the first and final tests will provide Cheatham with data to determine if the ingestion of the blueberry powder affected the participants’ cognitive abilities. Through the study, Cheatham anticipates that new biomarkers and genetic components will be identified for future study.


Cheatham’s Research
Cheatham investigates the role of fatty acids and nutrients like choline, iron, and zinc on memory, attention and other cognitive abilities. Her usual subjects are infants, toddlers and young children. She has developed behavioral and electrophysiological approaches to facilitate research with such young subjects and their families. The B.E.R.R.Y Study marks an expansion of her research focus to include older adults.

Some of her most recent study findings established a link between a mother’s genotype and her baby’s cognitive ability. Cheatham and her research team worked with breastfeeding mothers and looked specifically at the effects of a GG genotype, which cannot use plant fatty acids like LNA to make an animal fatty acid called DHA. DHA is linked to the functioning of memory and the hippocampus in the brain. The infants from the mothers with the GG genotype, who had lower DHA levels in their milk, showed less recognition memory development than other infants in the study. With toddlers, Cheatham looked again at children from mothers with the GG genotype and found that supplementing their diet with fatty acids like flaxseed oil helped improve their memory performance.

The B.E.R.R.Y Study allows her to contribute a new level of understanding and scientific discovery to the effect of nutrition on cognition furthering the NRI’s mission to personalize nutrition.

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