Barbara Shukitt-Hale, PhD.


Dr. Barbara Shukitt-Hale is a USDA Staff Scientist in the Laboratory of Neuroscience and Aging, USDA-ARS, Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston, MA. Additionally, she serves as an Affiliate Faculty member in the Psychology Department and a Visiting Scholar in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. She received her Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Boston University in 1993.

In 1996, Dr. Shukitt-Hale was awarded the Glenn Post-Doctoral Award, presented by the American Aging Association. She is a member of the Society for Neuroscience and has served as a board member and secretary of the American Aging Association. Dr. Shukitt-Hale has been involved in research for almost 30 years, beginning when she was an undergraduate student at Boston University; this work earned her the Research Award, given at graduation to the best student researcher in the Psychology Department. Before coming to the HNRCA, she worked as a Research Psychologist in the Division of Health and Performance and as a Neuroscientist in the Military Performance and Neuroscience Division at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM).

Dr. Shukitt-Hale’s current work involves researching the behavioral and neurochemical effects of aging in rodents, specifically investigating motor and cognitive performance changes due to oxidative stress, using the free-radical theory of aging as a working model. Her work includes determining the factors responsible for age-related behavioral changes and possible amelioration of these effects with various nutritional treatments. Her work showing that a diet supplemented with blueberry extract could reverse functional age-related deficits in motor and cognitive behavior has had a tremendous impact in the popular press. She continues to research the mechanisms behind the berry fruit’s positive effects, and has found that they 1) have direct effects on signaling to enhance neuronal communication, 2) have the ability to buffer against excess calcium, 3) enhance neuroprotective stress shock proteins, and 4) reduce stress signals and increase neurogenesis. She has published more than 166 articles and selected papers.


Behavioral Effects of Berries in Aging and Aging Radiation Models

Barbara Shukitt-Hale1, Bernard M. Rabin2, and James A. Joseph1, 1USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, MA 02111 and 2University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD 21250

Fruits and vegetables high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, such as blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries, can prevent and even reverse the occurrence of the neurochemical and behavioral changes that occur in aging. Previously, we have shown that whole, crude berry extracts are able to reverse several parameters of brain aging as well as age-related motor and cognitive deficits when fed to rats from 19-21 months of age. These effects may be the result of direct effects on brain signaling or indirect effects through antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the polyphenols in these berries.

Major risks are associated with radiation exposures on deep space missions, including carcinogenesis due to heavy-particle exposure of cancer-prone tissues and performance decrements due to neurological damage produced by heavy particles. Exposing young rats to particles of high energy and charge, such as 56Fe, enhances indices of oxidative stress and inflammation and disrupts functioning in the brain in a manner similar to that seen in aged animals. Given the similarities between the normal aging process and the effects of exposure to heavy particles, we evaluated the efficacy of the berry fruit diets on ameliorating the irradiation-induced deficits in neurochemical and behavioral function.

To assess the capacity of berry fruit diets to mitigate the effects of exposure to heavy particles, rats were maintained on diets containing 2% blueberry or strawberry extract or a control diet for 8 weeks prior to exposure to accelerated iron particles at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Compared to control rats, the rats maintained on the berry fruit diets showed improved performance in tests of amphetamine-induced taste aversion learning, operant responding, object recognition, and spatial learning and memory as measured in the Morris water maze (MWM) when tested at least one month following irradiation. The effectiveness of the diets in ameliorating the radiation-induced deterioration in performance varied as a function of both the specific diet and the specific endpoint. In addition, animals fed berry fruit diets prior to exposure showed reduced heavy particle-induced tumorigenesis one year after exposure compared to the animals fed the control diet.

While both the strawberry and blueberry supplementations protected rats from radiation-induced deficits in cognition, the strawberry diet offered better protection against spatial deficits in the MWM, because strawberry-fed animals were better able to retain place information (a hippocampally-mediated behavior) on probe trials (when the platform was removed from maze) compared to controls. The blueberry diet, on the other hand, seemed to improve reversal learning (i.e., when the platform was moved from one quadrant to another in the Morris water maze), a behavior more dependent on intact striatal function. Therefore, it appears that the polyphenolic compounds in these fruits might be acting in different brain regions to produce their beneficial effects. These results suggest that berry fruit diets have the potential to serve as part of a system designed to provide protection to astronauts against the effects of heavy particles on exploratory missions outside the magnetic field of the earth. Furthermore, the beneficial effects of these berry fruit supplementations may involve more than decreased sensitivity to oxidative stress or inflammation.

Keywords: Inflammation, aging, oxidative stress, behavior, radiation, berry fruits

Joseph, J.A., Shukitt-Hale, B., and Casadesus, G. Reversing the deleterious effects of aging on neuronal communication and behavior: The beneficial properties of fruit polyphenolics. Amer. J. Clin. Nutr. 81 (Suppl.):313S-316S. 2005.

Rabin, B.M., Shukitt-Hale, B., Joseph, J., and Todd, P. Diet as a factor in behavioral radiation protection following exposure to heavy particles. Gravitational Space Biol. 18: 71-77. 2005.

Rabin, B. M., Joseph, J. A., Shukitt-Hale, B., and Carey, A. N. Dietary modulation of the effects of exposure to 56Fe particles. Adv. Space Res. 40: 576-580. 2007.

Shukitt-Hale, B., Carey, A.N., Jenkins, D., Rabin, B.M., Joseph J.A. Beneficial effects of fruit extracts on neuronal function and behavior in a rodent model of accelerated aging. Neurobiol. Aging 28:1187-1194. 2007.

Shukitt-Hale, B., Casadesus, G., Carey, A.N., Rabin, B.M., and Joseph, J.A. Exposure to radiation accelerates normal brain aging and produces deficits in spatial learning and memory. Adv. Space Res. 39:1087-1092. 2007.

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