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Research Newsletter-Spring/Summer 2012

Balz Frei, Ph.D.


Balz Frei, Ph.D.
LPI Director and Endowed Chair
OSU Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics

It is my pleasure to introduce the latest addition to the Linus Pauling Institute—Dr. Kathy Magnusson, who joined the Institute's Healthy Aging Program as a Principal Investigator in March. She comes to us from the Department of Biomedical Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University, where she is a tenured professor. Dr. Magnusson received both a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.) and a Ph.D. degree from the University of Minnesota, with a major degree in veterinary anatomy and a minor degree in neuroscience. After holding faculty positions at Colorado State University and the University of Idaho, she joined Oregon State University in 2005.

Kathy Magnusson, D.V.M., Ph.D.

Dr. Magnusson calls herself an "aging neuroscientist interested in how we can prevent or repair the declines that occur during aging in learning and memory ability." She jokingly adds that she hopes "to figure this out before I forget what the question is." Dr. Magnusson is particularly interested in how aging affects specific proteins in the brain called "N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors," which play a dominant role in memory function. She also is investigating how dietary and lifestyle interventions may slow age-related cognitive decline, memory loss, and brain atrophy, the harbingers of Alzheimer's disease.

A few years ago, she was the recipient of an LPI Pilot Project grant—together with her colleague, Dr. Jane Ishmael—to investigate how dietary zinc levels may influence NMDA receptor properties in the elderly. She also has collaborated with several LPI Principal Investigators, including Dr. Tory Hagen, with whom she explored the role of lipoic acid in the aging brain. Since there is evidence that elevated vitamin D levels in the elderly are correlated with improved cognitive function, Dr. Magnusson is also collaborating with LPI's Dr. Fritz Gombart to investigate how vitamin D deficiency and vitamin D supplementation affect memory in young and old mice.

Coincidentally, Dr. Maret Traber and I were recently involved in a related study looking at diet and brain function in the elderly (summarized here). In collaboration with Dr. Gene Bowman of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, we found that old adults who had high plasma levels of B vitamins and vitamins C, D, and E performed better on memory and learning tests and had less brain shrinkage than old adults with lower plasma levels of these vitamins. High plasma levels of B vitamins and C and E reflect a Mediterranean-type diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and vegetable oils. Vitamin D is formed in the skin upon sun exposure, and only a few foods like fish and fortified milk provide vitamin D in the diet.

A similar association was observed between increased plasma levels of omega-3 fatty acids and healthy brain aging. These omega-3 fatty acids, often called EPA and DHA, are primarily found in marine fish and fish oil supplements. Our findings are consistent with previous research suggesting that low DHA status is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. In addition, the study with Dr. Bowman found that old people with high plasma levels of trans fats from highly processed, nutrient-poor foods, such as packaged, fried, or baked foods, were more likely to exhibit brain shrinkage and score lower on the cognitive function tests than old people with low plasma levels of trans fats.

Interestingly, all of these dietary patterns associated with poor or healthy brain aging are also associated with cardiovascular health. For example, people who eat diets high in fruits and vegetables have about a 20% lower risk of suffering a heart attack and a 30% lower risk of a stroke, while high intake of trans fats is associated with about a 20% increased risk of these cardiovascular events. In addition, clinical trials have shown that fish oil supplements significantly lower the risk of heart attacks and sudden cardiac death in people with heart disease. These parallels between dietary patterns and either brain or heart health suggest common underlying causes, such as chronic inflammation or high blood pressure. Indeed, it is known that inflammation is counteracted by fish oils, and a diet rich in low-fat dairy products and fruits and vegetables, as well as vitamin C supplementation, have beneficial effects on blood pressure.

While more studies are needed to demonstrate a causal link between brain health in the elderly and the beneficial or detrimental dietary patterns identified in our study with Dr. Bowman, these data certainly are intriguing and, well, food for thought!

Last updated May 2012