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02-14-2012, 07:18 AM
The Best Foods for Thought, Literally.

We've long known that the Mediterranean diet is good for the heart. Now, it may be good for the brain as well.

A study published in this month's issue of the Archives of Neurology found that the diet might protect against blood-vessel damage in the brain, reducing the risks of stroke and memory loss.

It's the first study to specifically examine the effects of the diet centered around vegetables, fruits, fish, whole grains, nuts, olive oil and a moderate amount of alcohol, with limited consumption of red meat, sweets and refined grains like white bread or white rice—on the brain's small blood vessels.

Previous studies have suggested adhering to a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and cognitive disorders like Alzheimer's disease.

In the latest study, researchers, led by a group at the University of Miami in Florida and Columbia University in New York, analyzed food questionnaires filled out by nearly 1,000 people participating in a larger, ongoing Northern Manhattan Study. These participants were categorized into groups based on how closely they adhered to an ideal Mediterranean-style diet, said Clinton Wright, one of the researchers and an associate professor of neurology at Miami's Miller School of Medicine.

Researchers then used magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scans of the brain to look for what are called white matter hyperintensities, which show up as small lesions on the scan and indicate damage to small blood vessels. The damaged blood vessels can cause small so-called silent strokes with no immediate symptoms but which over time can affect cognitive performance.

Broadly, the study showed that people with the highest Mediterranean diet scores had the lowest white-matter volume burden.

Researchers also found that the type of fat appeared to matter. Those who consumed more monounsaturated fat, which is found in olive oil, had lower white-matter hyperintensity volumes on their brain scans.

Dr. Wright cautioned that the study doesn't prove that a Mediterranean-style diet causes less brain damage and said more study is needed. But he said it indicates that the diet might be protective of small blood vessels in the brain.

Write to Jennifer Corbett Dooren at jennifer.corbett-dooren@dowjones.com