Nutrients linked to brain lesions

Physicians, nutritionists, and health magazines advocate increased consumption of calcium and vitamin D. Together, the nutrients build strong bones, while vitamin D offers a bevy of benefits on its own—from fighting cancer to improving people’s gums. The aging brain may not share in those benefits, however.

SPOTTED. Red zones highlight brain lesions—notable in scan at left and minimal in scan on right—imaged in magnetic resonance scans during a study of diet and the brain. Payne

In a new study, greater consumption of either nutrient correlated with more and bigger brain lesions in elderly volunteers.

“I’m talking about damage that you can see in white matter or gray matter of the brain,” explains study leader Martha E. Payne of Duke University in Durham, N.C. “We think these lesions are due to a lack of oxygen to [affected] areas,” she reported May 1 at the Experimental Biology meeting in Washington, D.C.

As part of a long-term study on late-life depression, Payne’s group administered dietary questionnaires to 232 people and did magnetic resonance scans of their brains. Most participants were over 70 years old but didn’t necessarily have depression.

Everyone had lesions, which typically develop with age. However, after accounting for factors associated with a greater risk of lesions, such as high blood pressure, the researchers found that the degree of damage generally tracked the elderly people’s intakes of calcium and vitamin D.

The damage occurred in regions “important in mood regulation,” Payne says.

Payne cautions that it’s too early to conclude that either nutrient actually causes brain lesions.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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