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By John Schieszer
Medical Minutes 

The benefits of cinnamon, walking and lasers

Medical Minutes


Walking away from dementia

Grab your walking shoes. Studies are continuing to show that the more physical exercise you get, the greater your chances of preventing dementia. Using the landmark Framingham Heart Study to assess how physical activity affects the size of the brain and one’s risk for developing dementia, UCLA researchers have found an association between low physical activity and a higher risk for dementia in older adults. The new findings suggest that regular physical activity could lead to higher brain volumes and a reduced risk for developing dementia.

The researchers found that physical activity particularly affected the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain controlling short-term memory. In addition, the protective effect of regular physical activity against dementia was strongest in adults age 75 and older. This is very important news because it suggests that regular physical activity among adults 50 and older may be much more important in terms of brain health than previously recognized.

The Framingham study began in 1948 primarily as a way to trace factors and characteristics leading to cardiovascular disease, dementia and other physiological conditions. For this study, the UCLA researchers followed an older group from the Framingham study for more than a decade to examine the association between physical activity and the risk for incident dementia and subclinical brain MRI markers of dementia.

They found it is never too late to stave off the risk of dementia by exercising more. They studied thousands of subjects and found that just moderate exercise may be protective against all types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Cinnamon may boost brain power

Studies have suggested that adding cinnamon to your food on a regular basis may help improve blood glucose levels in adults with prediabetes or diabetes. Now, it turns out that cinnamon may also be good for the brain.

Researchers at Rush University have found that cinnamon may have the potential to turn poor learners into good ones. They have found that different compounds in cinnamon, including cinnamaldehyde, which gives the spice is distinctive flavor and aroma, are metabolized into sodium benzoate in the liver. The researchers report that sodium benzoate then becomes the active compound, which readily enters the brain and stimulates hippocampal plasticity.

The researchers first tested mice in mazes to separate the good and poor learners. Good learners made fewer wrong turns and took less time to find food. In analyzing baseline disparities between the good and poor learners, they found differences in two brain proteins. The gap was all but erased when cinnamon was given.

Cinnamon, like many spices, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. So it could be expected to exert a range of health-boosting actions, and it does have a centuries-long history of medicinal use around the world. However, the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that “high-quality clinical evidence to support the use of cinnamon for any medical condition is generally lacking.”

Most of the clinical trials that have taken place have focused on the spice’s possible effect on blood sugar for people with diabetes. Little if any clinical research has been done on the spice’s possible brain-boosting properties.

“Besides general memory improvement, cinnamon may target Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, and Parkinson’s disease as well,” said study investigator Dr. Kalipada Pahan, who is a researcher at Rush University and the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Before you start heaping cinnamon on your oatmeal, keep a few caveats in mind. Most cinnamon found in the store is the Chinese variety, which contains a compound called coumarin that may be toxic to the liver in high amounts. A person would likely have to eat huge amounts of cinnamon to run into a problem, but just the same, Dr. Pahan recommends the Ceylon or Sri Lanka type, which is coumarin-free.

“Even then, don’t overdo it. Anything in excess is toxic,” Dr. Pahan said.

Nanoparticles and lasers that zap cancer

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark are reporting that they have developed a method that kills cancer cells using nanoparticles and lasers. Traditional cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, have significant side effects because they not only affect the cancer, but also the healthy parts of the body. This approach avoids all that.

“The treatment involves injecting tiny nanoparticles directly into the cancer. Then you heat up the nanoparticles from outside using lasers. It is a strong interaction between the nanoparticles and the laser light, which causes the particles to heat up. What then happens is that the heated particles damage or kill the cancer cells,” said Professor Lene Oddershede, who is a biophysicist at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

The small nanoparticles are between 80 and 150 nanometers in diameter (a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter). The experiments showed that the researchers got the best results with nanoparticles that were 150 nanometers in size and consisted of a core of glass coated with gold. The nanoparticles were illuminated with near-infrared laser light, which is the best at penetrating through the tissue. In contrast to conventional radiation therapy, the near-infrared laser light causes no burn damage to the tissue that it passes through. Just an hour after the treatment, the researchers could already directly see with PET scans that the cancer cells had been killed.

“In the longer term, we would like the method to work by injecting the nanoparticles into the bloodstream, where they end up in the tumors that may have metastasized. With the PET scans we can see where the tumors are and irradiate them with lasers,” said Oddershede.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

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