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Scared Straight Into Eating Smart

When a DNA test reveals evidence of the gene that leads to Alzheimer's, cooking for the brain seems the intelligent choice

By Nonny de la Pe??a, Contributing Writer
Published on LatinoLA: May 1, 2014


Scared Straight Into Eating Smart


As soon as I got the DNA kit, I ripped it open and starting spitting into the provided test tubes. It was unexpected swag from an Autodesk event I had been invited to attend. I had done a lot of research into how genes can affect an individual's reaction to prescription drugs for one of my documentary films, so I was keen to know my own personal profile.

Was I susceptible to any particular pharmaceuticals? Was I a slow or fast metabolizer? And then there was also the fun of connecting with possible relatives around the world.

But when I received the results a few weeks later and logged onto the 23andMe.com website, I was given a somewhat terrifying option ÔÇô do you want to know if you have the APOE gene that is associated with Alzheimer's? My paternal grandmother suffered the affliction which had taken over her life sometime after she turned eighty. By 86, the descent was complete and we mostly blamed it on the fact that she was a lifetime smoker, despite her otherwise quite vigorous and healthy lifestyle.

Well, I have never been one for holding back. Click.

And, yep, there it was, an ugly positive.

"The official name of this gene is "apolipoprotein E." Sounds more like a child's treat than a terrifying genetic curse.

My parents have both passed eighty and neither is showing signs of dementia. In fact my father, suffering a number of physical ailments, is still as sharp and sarcastic as ever. Still, that only offers a limited amount of comfort because the gene is associated with late-onset Alzheimer's and right now, preventions in standard medicine practices are nonexistent.

So it was with great interest I learned about Perla Kaliman's work on using diet to promote brain health. Kaliman holds a PhD in biochemistry and she has conducted her scientific research at places like the University of California, University Barcelona, University of Nice and University of Buenos Aires. Currently, she works at the Spanish National Research Council - Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cient?¡ficas (CSIC) - in Barcelona.

Admittedly, I met Professor Kaliman in an unusual way. I was wearing a special motion capture suit, connected to a robot in Barcelona. The robot was acting as an extension of myself, my literal body, so that I could interview Professor Kaliman. When I spoke, the jaw of the robot moved and my audio came out of its mouth. I could reach my hand out to shake her hand, and its eyes blinked, giving me a sense of presence in the room. The main reason I was *there* however, was to interview Professor Kaliman on what I could use to promote a healthy brain beyond the standard prescription of crossword puzzles and exercise.

According to Professor Kaliman, the brain begins losing mass and memory at around 40 years of age and while the last century's improvements has extended life expectancy more than 30 years, advances in brain care have not kept up. As Kaliman points out, the degeneration of cells in the central nervous system leads to a host of illnesses. She says, "More than 35 million people worldwide live with some form of dementia, Alzheimer's disease being the most common. By the year 2050 it is expected the number of people with dementia will rise to 114 million."

Gulp. How can I dodge what now seems an inevitable bullet?

Please don't cringe if I call it a "no-brainer moment," but it was something that seems so obvious yet came surprisingly late. Just four years ago, Nature decided to devote a supplemental issue to "nutrigenomics," a new avenue of science on how nutrition and gene expression ÔÇô whether a gene is turned on or kept silent ÔÇô might be linked. Nutrigenomics studies range from why we may like certain foods or why someone may be more susceptible to an onset of Alzheimer's if they eat a fatty diet, which has been Kaliman's main concern.

Her work focuses on how particular nutrients can be obtained from food to maintain good brain health and whether avoiding others can be equally beneficial. The strategy, she says, "is to eat foods daily which provide neuroprotective factors. Our objective is to put you on the forefront of neuroscientific knowledge so you can begin cooking for your brain and well being."

I have never been one for vitamin chomping, juice cleansing or extreme herbal remedies so I approach Kaliman with some reticence. However, as she shows the foods she has laid out before me, they are simple and delicious. Fresh blueberries and strawberries, ginger and mint. Of course, I can't really drink the smoothie she calls an "intelligence cocktail" given that I am speaking to her through my robot body, but I have memory enough of such flavors to know that her suggestions will be tasty and refreshing. Could staying mentally agile be so simple?

Kaliman thinks so. She collaborated with Spanish chef Miguel Aguilar to produce an elegant book, Cocina Para Tu Mente (Cooking for Your Mind) both as a way to explain the basics of brain neurotransmitters and to offer specific recommendations for diet. The book also includes a lovely array of simple recipes that go way beyond the lovely smoothie that she has made for my metallic doppelganger to witness. Perhaps not surprisingly, the culinary offerings reveal a definite Spanish influence including a bacalao and purple potato dish, garlic soup and a cream of walnut dessert.

I don't expect you to wait around to see how this story turns out, but I can tell you that as I write this, I am popping blueberries in my mouth and there was definitely some extra ginger in last night's dinner. I'll be back on my rollerblades later today.

And, just in case, I will break open one of the crossword puzzles that I have neglected of late.

About Nonny de la Pe??a, Contributing Writer:
A pioneer of Immersive Journalism, a groundbreaking brand of nonfiction that offers fully immersive experiences of the news using virtual reality gaming platforms, Nonny combines communication and technology skills with her lengthy career as a reporter.
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