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How 'bout them apples?

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By MICHAEL LAFLEUR

LOWELL- Your mom was right.

It turns out that an apple a day or rather, two to three apples could in fact keep the doctor away.

According to research announced yesterday by University of Massachusetts Lowell professor Thomas Shea, eating apples and drinking apple juice may protect brain health and improve mental acuity throughout life, helping to stave off the onset of such disorders as Alzheimer's disease.

"The good news is it isn't 5 gallons of apple juice," Shea said at a press conference yesterday in the Wannalancit Mill complex's MIL Conference Center. "It's something credible."

Mice involved in his two-year, $50,000 study funded by the apple industry showed beneficial effects after consuming the human equivalent of about three 8-ounce glasses of apple juice a day, or two to three apples, Shea said.

"This is one month with mice in a cage," he said. "For us, it's decades."

Shea, director of the university's Center for Cellular Neurobiology and Neurodegeneration Research, cautioned that his results published last month in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging are preliminary, and clinical data is needed before any health benefit to humans can be confirmed.

But in an interview after his presentation, Shea noted that the consumption of apple juice had "a very profound and significant effect in mice."

His work examined the interplay between the apple juice, dietary deficiencies and genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's-like illnesses. The researchers did not study which components in apples were responsible for the effects documented.

Alzheimer's is believed to be caused by oxidative damage to brain cells that can occur naturally in humans. The digestive process results in what is known as "oxidative stress," for example. Shea found that the natural antioxidants in apples somehow prevent such damage from impairing memory and the ability to function.

He and his team, which included graduate and undergraduate UMass Lowell students, studied normal mice and mice that had been genetically altered to mimic a condition found in humans believed to be predisposed to diseases like Alzheimer's.

Over a month, groups of both types were fed either a normal diet including antioxidants, or large doses of iron, which exacerbates oxidative stress. Select mice were also given concentrated apple juice, in amounts that constituted 0.1, 0.5 or 1 percent of their drinking water. All mice were then individually placed in a so-called Y-Maze which looks, as the name would imply, like an upside-down "Y" and monitored.

Genetically compromised mice fed the high-iron diet had difficulty remembering where they had been, and tended to go up and down the same arm of the maze repeatedly, Shea said. Meanwhile, genetically altered mice fed a diet of at least 0.5 percent apple juice had virtually the same cognitive abilities as the normal mice fed a complete diet. Adding apple juice to the diet completely protected the normal mice from oxidative damage caused by the iron.

Other mice received sugar water to approximate the juice's natural sugar and energy content, which Shea said his research ruled out as a cause of the positive effects demonstrated.

Such results offer promise in the fight against memory disorders.

"Alzheimer's affects all of us whether we know someone with the disease or not," Shea said. "To find a cure is very difficult. A quicker alternative is to find a treatment."

The prevalence of Alzheimer's doubles for every decade of life beyond age 65, at which point about 10 percent of population will suffer from the disease, Shea said. Just being able to push back the onset of Alzheimer's by 10 years would have a "massive effect" on the number of individuals affected by the disease and the cost associated with treating them.

Shea added that he is planning to continue his study of apple juice's cognitive effects with mice that model genetic disorders more commonly found in younger people, such as Attention Deficit Disorder.

His recent work was funded by $50,000 in grants from the U.S. Apple Association and the Apple Products Research and Education Council. The results clearly pleased industry executives, some of whom were in the audience yesterday. They have seen fruits and vegetables with high carbohydrate content assailed by the popularity of the Atkins diet, which counsels forgoing such foods in favor of high protein and fatty meats.

"We've always believed that the consumption of apples and apple juice is very good for consumers," said Sam Rowse, president of Littleton-based Veryfine Products Inc. "It's just clear as crystal. We want people to understand that and get off the sausages and bacon."

Shea insisted that his research was not tainted by the industry sponsorship.

"Had there been no effect, we would have been reporting there was no effect," he said.

Indeed, his findings add to a growing body of work pointing to the brain health benefits of fruits and vegetables.

Tufts University researcher Barbara Shuckitt-Hale, who has helped author similar studies focusing on blueberries, yesterday said her work on elderly rats found that the phytochemicals in blueberries that make them such effective antioxidants also dramatically improved the older rats' ability to learn and remember.

"These phytochemicals are to protect the plants from things like the sun and pollution, but if we eat them, they protect us too," said Shuckitt-Hale, reached at her office in Boston. "The one caution you have to put out there is no one's really done a human study. We hope that it would translate, but we don't know for sure. But one thing we do know is that eating fruits is not going to hurt you."