Trees in the shape of human heads illustrating brain function decline

Do You Mind? Brain, Memory and Mental Health

"The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10 thousand other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe."
Michio Kaku

 The brain is one of the most complex organs in the human body. It plays an essential role in just about every vital body system. Thinking, learning, remembering, planning, and wishing all happen here. Most of us want to improve these abilities if we can or at least prevent some decline as we age. 

Many healthcare providers recommend mind-stimulating activities such as crossword puzzles or memorization. There are various apps for handheld devices that have mind-building games that can assist in this. The old phrase “use it or lose it” definitely applies here. The more active that your mind is, the less that it declines.

Supplements are also a popular way that many take to help slow down the mental decline. In the past few decades, fish oil with Omega-3 fatty acids, turmeric, resveratrol, and Ginkgo Biloba have become well known. But what did people use before these supplements became prevalent? The answer is rather surprising.

The Role of EBN in Brain Health

Edible bird’s nest (EBN) made from the saliva of swiftlets in South-East Asia was once thought to be the superfood of royal families of centuries past. Now, scientists are beginning to study its positive effects on people today.

A recent research study assessed whether the animals’ offspring, which were given EBN during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, would perform better on tests as compared to the ones who didn’t. The results showed that EBN assisted in enhanced learning and improved memory. While additional in-vivo studies have yet to be carried out on humans, current findings strongly suggest that expectant and lactating mothers may benefit from EBN

Scientists at the School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences, University of Sydney, Australia and School of Medicine, Xiamen University, P. R. China are studying one specific nutrient that can assist the brain - sialic acid. 

Due to the bird saliva content, sialic acid is heavily present in EBN. An article published by Food Research International claims that bird's nest “was higher than sialic acid-rich foods such as human (breast) milk and chicken egg yolk.”

At first glance, sialic acid almost appears to be misspelled. Shouldn’t it read salicylic acid or acetylsalicylic acid? The answer is no. These are actually different ingredients. Sialic acid is a generic term for a family of neuraminic acids - a simple sugar. N-acetylneuraminic acids (Neu5Ac, or NANA) is the most common type and is found in high concentrations in the brain, breast milk, the immune system, and saliva. 

Two Science-Backed Benefits of Sialic Acid on the Brain

Improves Brain Plasticity

It is vital for a human being to be flexible to the changes faced each day. The same idea happens within the brain and it is called brain plasticity. Just as you are inundated with many decisions and new things, your brain has to adapt to survive. 

Brain plasticity is often a result of two things: functional or structural changes. Structural plasticity is seen as you learn the lyrics to a new song or use a new iPhone. Functional plasticity is much more complicated. This is often seen where the body has to completely re-adapt to situations in a whole new way. Functional plasticity is found in situations such as patients who have to learn to walk again after devastating car crashes or stroke victims who were paralyzed.

Nature Reviews Neuroscience journal published a studyabout the role of sialic acid in the functional plasticity of the brain. Scientists found that sialic acid assisted the central nervous system to adapt to changes in the sleep and hormonal levels. It also helped to improve the way the body deals with pain and stressors. 

Promotes Infant Brain and Memory Development

Sialic acid has a substantial impact on many of the neural membrane-related structures and functions. They’re found to affect early developmental processes in the brain and is more prevalent in the early years of a person’s life. Elderly have decreased levels of sialic acid.

The early years of life are a period of exponential brain development. To illustrate: at birth, a baby has approximately 2500 neural synapses. This number grows to over 15,000 by the time the child reaches their third birthday. 

Researchers at the Taiwan Pediatrics Association studied the role of breast milk for babies. While for many years, “Breast is Best” has been the slogan for the March of Dimes — the scientific research seems to continually back this up. Human breast milk contains high concentrations of sialic acid to promote the development of infants' brains and memory functions. 

The brain-promoting functions of sialic acid have been supported by two in-vivo studies by Oxford Academicand Neural Plasticity to demonstrate its efficacy in boosting infants' cognitive functions when taken as an oral supplementation by the mother. 

How EBN Can Help in Brain Disorders

While many diseases can affect a person’s brain, this article wants to highlight three specific ones. These are Alzheimer’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and Parkinson’s Disease. While none of these conditions have a cure, scientists are studying the effects of EBN and sialic acid to see how they might have positive impacts.

Alzheimer’s Disease

According to the Alzheimer's Association, it is a “type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior.” This is a progressive and irreversible brain disorder where abnormal protein deposits build up in the brain. “It accounts for 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases.” There are no true causes for Alzheimer’s diseases except for aging.

Family members often recognize the symptoms of this disease instead of the patient themselves. They can include:

  • Difficulty remembering
  • Forgetfulness
  • Agitation
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Personality changes

Due to the complexity of the disease, there is currently no one drug or intervention that can successfully treat it. Medications can help slow the progression of the disease, but that is it. This represents a critical, unfulfilled medical need. Scientists have turned to functional foods like EBN to evaluate their potential in filling the gap.

Excitingly, one in-vivo study has shown that the pre-treatment of EBN confers protective effects to the hippocampus of the brain. The hippocampus is one of the first areas in the brain affected by Alzheimer’s. The researchers propose that this benefit is due to sialic acidpresent in EBN.

EBN, however, failed to show neuroprotective effects towards those who already have Alzheimer’s: it seems more effective as a preventive action, rather than a cure.

Multiple Sclerosis

The National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation explains that this condition is an “unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.” While both men and women can get MS, “women are four times more likely” says Science Daily

Symptoms of MS include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty walking
  • Muscle spasms
  • Dizziness
  • Pain without a known cause

Most notably, it causes motor deficits that arise without warning; one minute the person is walking fine and then suddenly he(she) isn't.

While no studies address the effects of EBN and MS, there is research that looks at the sialic acid that EBN contains. The Journal of Neurochemistry studied the effects of sialic acid on multiple sclerosis. It showed to help in reversing motor deficits and might be an interesting adjuvant care for patients with MS and neurodegenerative diseases.

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurological disorder that causes the death of dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. Dopamine is the happy transmitter in the brain. It produces that contented sigh after a sip of a perfect cup of coffee or a bite of grandma’s chocolate-chip cookies. It is present in approximately 10 million people worldwide, and men are at a higher risk to get this than women according to Parkinson’s Foundation

Not only does dopamine affects the reward centers of your brain, but it also allows you to perform smooth movements. Without the right amounts, the signal to move your hand to pick up the cup of coffee does not flow as smoothly as it should. 

Symptoms of Parkinson’s include:

  • Tremor
  • Loss of smell
  • Movement issues
  • Constipation
  • Masked Face

Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. Treatment options, according to the Mayo Clinic, center around the use of medications. Unfortunately, the medications come with many side effects and eventually stop working as they do not treat the underlying cause. 

Perhaps, one of the most famous faces of Parkinson’s Disease is Micheal J. Fox. His foundation works tirelessly to continue advancing research for this terrible disease. Their goal is to find a cure for the disease and to decrease the side effects of the medications. 

One research by BioMed Central studied the benefits of using EBN for those with Parkinson’s Diseases. Instead of trying to make more dopamine, the study focused on preventing cell death (that occurs in oxidative stress) of the neurons that carry dopamine. Since EBN contains bioactive compounds that fight against oxidation, it could be helpful to protect the body from the stress-oxidative effects that are seen in PD.

Conclusion

The brain is arguably the most critical organ in the human body. It is no surprise to improve its functions that scientists are discovering old and new ways to do this. Sialic acid and Edible bird’s nest have been around for centuries, but perhaps they can help improve brain health in the future.

Maybe you’ve tried supplements or brain-stimulating games. Have you found something that has worked for you? Let us know in the comments and share with a friend who might benefit from this information. 

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