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Brain researchers have made an exciting new discovery: Some changes in our brains may be ameliorated through nutritional (or, perhaps, pharmaceutical) interventions.

One leading theory suggests that the physical signs of aging throughout our bodies and brains are partly a result of cell damage caused by "free radicals"?unstable molecules that react with oxygen in the body.

When they react with oxygen, free radicals cause "oxidative damage," or oxidation, which can be compared to the rusting of metal. Oxidation damages mitochondria, the energy-producing power plants in cells. And making matters worse, mitochondria spew out free radicals as they generate energy, exposing them to further damage.

"You can imagine," explains M. Flint Beal, MD, a Dana Alliance member from Cornell University's Weill Medical College, "that if a cell's power plants start to shut down, that cell is going to have a problem."

Our brains rely on interconnected networks of nerve cells, or neurons, to function. But neurons are not made as freely as other cells?this may make them particularly vulnerable to damage caused by oxidation.

Free Radicals and Brain Diseases

Scientific evidence shows that oxidative damage may play a part in many brain-related (neurodegenerative) diseases, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Huntington's disease, and other movement disorders, according to Beal.

Many of these diseases probably form years before symptoms are noticeable. This has led researchers to believe that exposure to higher levels of free radicals may speed up damage to our vulnerable neurons, beyond what would occur with normal aging.

Fighting Free Radicals

The news about free radicals may seem dismal. But it's actually positive: Once you understand what may cause damage, it's easier to figure out how to avoid or counteract it.

This is the reason behind a growing interest in foods and supplements high in antioxidants. Antioxidants work against free radicals. Nutritional support could possibly slow oxidative damage caused by free radicals, and may even prove useful in treating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

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