Snippets From Science


• Per capita blueberry consumption in 2008 (the last year of data available) reached an all-time record in the U.S. The reason? It turns out that blueberries are one of the best brain foods we can consume. Why? One word: flavonoids. There are about 6,000 kinds of these antioxidant chemicals, and blueberries are an especially rich source. Recent research shows that flavonoids may enhance learning, memory, and general cognitive functions of the human brain. Studies also show that their consumption may slow age-related decline in mental function and even slow the progress of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.


Fortunately, blueberries aren’t the only source of flavonoids. They are found in fruits and vegetables, cereal grains, cocoa, soy foods, tea, and wine. In a study by French researchers, the diets of 1,640 healthy older adults were followed for 10 years. At the beginning of the study, a battery of tests were given to evaluate the subjects’ mental skills. At the end of the 10 years they were re-tested. Those with the best scores at the end of the study were eating between 18 and 37 milligrams of flavonoids a day, which would be equal to about 15 blueberries, a quarter of a cup of orange juice, or half a cup of tofu. Some more good news: chocolate has lots of flavonoids. (Franz, M., Scientific American Mind, Jan./Feb., 2011)


• A recent article entitled “The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World’s Vertebrates” provides good news and bad. Science, one of America’s most prestigious scientific journals, published the paper. The article’s 164 authors from all over the world produced the first comprehensive report on the status of vertebrates, from alewives to zebras. They evaluated the status of 25,780 species and determined that one-fifth are threatened, and that more are teetering toward extinction. However, the authors show that the rate of species loss would have been at least one-fifth again as much in the absence of man’s efforts to preserve species and habitats. The survival of many species remains conservation-dependent, including the whooping crane (rescued from extinction 70 years ago) and the white rhinoceros (rescued from extinction 115 years ago). Nevertheless, agricultural expansion, logging, overexploitation, and invasive alien species continue to threaten vertebrate biodiversity. (Science, Dec. 10, 2010)


• What good is penmanship? Why do so many older people express dismay at the diminishing role of handwriting instruction in elementary school? Who needs it, anyway, when computer or phone keypads form the letters of the alphabet for us. Recent studies show that penmanship is more than pretty writing. Researchers have discovered that forming letters by hand is one key to learning, memory, and ideas. While keyboarding involves touching a key to select a whole letter, handwriting requires the execution of sequential strokes to form a letter. Such sequential movements activate massive brain regions involved in thinking, language, and working memory. And there’s evidence that older people can improve their thinking skills by retraining themselves in handwriting skills. (Bounds, G., in The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 5, 2010; and in Brain in the News, Nov. 2010)


• Just before the infamous BP oil spill, two new species of non-swimming fish were discovered on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Named “Pancake Batfishes,” they are about three inches wide and highly flattened. They blend into the ocean bottom waiting on prey or hop around using their stubby pectoral fins. With pockets of oil remaining on the sea bottom, biologists are wondering if these recently discovered creatures will survive the catastrophe. (Lynch, K., CNN, June 16, 2010)