Mission To determine the mechanisms of action of nutrients and bioactive compounds in improving brain function during aging. Our experiments address this goal in biological systems of increasing complexity, from cell cultures of normal and at-risk neural cells, including stem cells, neurons and microglia, to normal and pathological aging animal models, to aged human subjects. Our lab studies how foods benefit the aging brain, especially in maintaining mobility and cognitive function and slowing the progression of neurological disease. Specifically, we look at the ways nutrients can counteract the changes in the aging brain that make it more susceptible to neurological disorders. We focus on the persistent activation of pathways that reduce brain plasticity and, over time, contribute to destructive cellular changes which affect cell survival and functioning such as their ability to generate new cells and to adapt to new experiences. We also investigate behavioral and performance changes due to oxidative stress and inflammation, in conjunction with changes in cellular function, signal transduction. and possible amelioration of these effects with nutrition. Importantly, this information can then be utilized to demonstrate that particular nutritional interventions may increase “health span” in aging and provide a “longevity dividend” for slowing the aging process.
Objectives • Determine the effects of genetic, molecular and environmental influences on the aging brain, and the modifying impact of specific phytonutrients on neural cell function and behavior, including cognition.
• Characterize in vitro and in vivo models that manifest aspects of human age-related neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, for screening combinations of phytonutrients that can prevent or delay chronic inflammation and other deleterious micro-environmental conditions that contribute to cell degeneration in the neurodegenerative disorders.
Barbara Shukitt-Hale, Ph.D.
Research Psychologist, USDA, ARS
Research focus: Age-related behavioral (cognition and motor performance) and neurochemical changes and nutritional treatments
Tong Zheng, Ph.D.
Research Focus: Characterization of neural stem cells that may be appropriate as therapeutic sources as well as in vivo and in vitro bioassays to test the role of nutritional supplements in maintaining brain health and preventing age-related neurological diseases.