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Pecans Provide Neurological Protection

Shea Study Shows Positive Results in Mice

Prof. Tom Shea’s research on motor neuron degeneration was conducted with specifically bred mice.

By Sandra Seitz

Eating about a handful of pecans each day may play a role in protecting the nervous system, according to a new animal study published in the current issue of Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research.

The study, conducted at the University’s Center for Cellular Neurobiology and Neurodegeneration by Thomas Shea, director and professor of biological sciences, suggests that adding pecans to one’s diet may delay the progression of age-related motor neuron degeneration. This may include diseases like amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Results suggest that vitamin E - a natural antioxidant found in pecans - may be key to the neurological protection shown in the study. Antioxidants are nutrients found in foods that help protect against cell damage and, studies have shown, can help fight diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and heart disease. Pecans are the most antioxidant-rich tree nut and are among the top 15 foods to contain the highest antioxidant capacity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Shea and his research team carried out a number of laboratory studies on three groups of mice specifically bred to demonstrate severe decline in motor neuron function that are commonly used in studies of ALS. Each of the three groups was fed a control diet or one of two diets containing differing amounts of pecans ground into their food. Standard testing methods were used to determine how well the mice scored relative to motor neuron functions, both before and after they were provided with one of the three diets. 

Mice given a diet supplemented with pecans displayed a significant delay in decline in motor function compared to mice that received no pecans. Mice that ate the diet with the most pecans (0.05 percent) fared best. Both pecan groups fared significantly better than those whose diets contained no pecans. The result was based on how the mice performed in highly specific tests, each of which compared mice on the control diet with mice consuming pecan-enriched diets.