Pecans Protect Neurological Function

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Here’s a not-so-nutty idea: Urge your holiday guests to get over the guilt and enjoy a piece of pecan pie as a healthy (albeit occasional) indulgence that can enhance their neurological function!

It’s not such a stretch. New research finds that eating pecans helps strengthen your nervous system, thus helping your brain to function better. Pecans are the tree nuts highest in disease-fighting antioxidants (such as vitamin E), according to the US Department of Agriculture, and they number among the 15 top antioxidant foods overall. Antioxidants shield your body’s cells from oxidative damage and may offer protection against central nervous system diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). While it is true that pecans contain significant levels of saturated fats, they also contain protective antioxidants (including proanthocyanidins) that make them helpful to heart and brain health.

The Study

At the Center for Cellular Neurobiology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Thomas B. Shea, PhD, director and professor of biological sciences, and his colleagues conducted several lab studies on the effects of pecan-enriched diets in mice. Mice bred to experience age-related neurological decline in motor neuron function (motor neurons are the nerve cells that send signals to the muscles) were divided into three groups. One group was given food that had lots of pecans ground into it… one group got somewhat less pecans… and the third group ate food with no pecans at all.

Dr. Shea and his team tested the motor neuron function in the mice before and after instituting the three diets. They found that…

  • Both groups of pecan-eating mice staved off motor function decline significantly, compared with the group that ate no pecans.
  • The mice who ate the most pecans (0.05% of their diet) fared the best.

These results were published in the June 2010 issue of Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research. Dr. Shea told me that the findings suggest that pecans “may enhance or sustain motor neuron health as we age.”

These findings motivated me to search out a really great recipe for a pecan pie that is healthful while also being delicious. After all, to my way of thinking, Thanksgiving isn’t complete without pecan pie for my dessert… and the recipe I discovered also includes heart-healthy dark chocolate.

Recipe: Dark Chocolate Pecan Pie

This pecan pie recipe comes from Southern cook extraordinaire Paula Deen, and since I’ve invited a friend with celiac disease to Thanksgiving dinner, I plan to make it with a ready-made gluten-free crust.

The Filling:

2 cups pecan halves
3 large eggs, beaten
3 Tablespoons butter, melted
½ cup dark corn syrup
1 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons good-quality bourbon
3 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped


Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Cover bottom of pie crust with pecan halves.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and melted butter. Add the corn syrup, sugar, bourbon and the chopped chocolate. Stir until all ingredients are combined. Pour mixture into the pie shell over the pecans and place on a heavy-duty cookie sheet.

Bake for 10 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 350°F, and continue to bake for an additional 25 minutes or until pie is set. Remove from oven, and cool on a wire rack.

Recipe courtesy of Paula Deen.

Thomas B. Shea, PhD, professor of biological sciences, and director, Center for Cellular Neurobiology and Neurodegeneration Research, University of Massachusetts, Lowell.