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James A. Joseph

James A. Joseph 1944–2010

James (Jim) A. Joseph, PhD, a respected neuroscientist whose groundbreaking body of research documented the anti-aging effects of certain fruits and vegetables on the brain, died June 1, 2010, from complications following surgery to replace an aortic valve. He was 66 years old.1

Dr. Joseph was well known for coauthoring The Color Code: A Revolutionary Eating Plan for Optimal Health (Hyperion, New York, NY). This 2002 book has been translated into 5 languages, improved the diets of many people in the United States and other countries, and was largely behind the national campaign “5-A-Day The Color Way,” which encouraged eating at least 5 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables each day.

A great deal of important research by Dr. Joseph preceded this trendsetting book. In 1993, he established and began his directorship of the Neuroscience Laboratory at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston, MA. It was there that he focused his research on fruits’ and vegetables’ ability to affect age-related memory loss and motor and cognitive behavior deficits.

“His view, stated to me many years ago, was that it could be that unique combinations of antioxidants present in food, particularly polyphenolic compounds, might be the key to efficient supplementation,” said Donald Ingram, PhD, director of Animal Metabolism and Behavior Core at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, who knew Dr. Joseph for 25 years (e-mail, August 30, 2010).

Dr. Joseph and his research team evaluated the effects that certain fruits and vegetables with high antioxidant content— including spinach, strawberries, and blueberries—had on many parameters of brain aging in rodent models. “For the first time ever, this work was able to demonstrate that diets rich in extracts of particular foods were able to retard, and in some cases reverse, age-related alterations in brain and behavioral function in rats,” said Dr. Ingram. “Until this work was initiated, there were virtually no studies showing that fruits and vegetables per se could have similar effects in the aging brain.”

Barbara Shukitt-Hale, PhD, of HNRCA, worked with Dr. Joseph for about 16 years and remembers when the research team found such encouraging results (oral communication, September 8, 2010). “The fact that these things that you could eat that were healthy for you and tasted good, it excited all of us,” said Dr. Shukitt-Hale. “I think that’s where his enthusiasm really took off.”

Dr. Joseph’s later research had similarly important findings. In 2003, he found that a diet supplemented with blueberries could prevent the development of cognitive declines in a mouse model for Alzheimer’s disease. He had also begun researching the effects of blueberries’ antioxidant properties on signaling pathways that cells use to protect themselves against stressors.2 Additionally, Drs. Joseph and Shukitt-Hale found in 2008 that the anti-inflammatory properties in blueberry polyphenols boosted brain function, perhaps due to altering gene expression.

Not only was Dr. Joseph’s work important in itself, it also led to the formation of a sizeable field of study on nutrition and the brain. “[His research] opened up a whole new area of study for a variety of commodities (e.g., cranberry, strawberry, walnuts), which had previously concentrated primarily on the cardiovascular effects of fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. Ingram. “Jim’s research has provided legitimacy and prestige to examining in a scientifically rigorous fashion the potential benefits of specific foods on brain aging.”

“Really anyone who is looking at fruits and vegetables or other natural products, took off from this work,” said Dr. Shukitt-Hale, who is one of the several scientists continuing Dr. Joseph’s research legacy. Dr. Shukitt-Hale recalled a time she and Dr. Joseph went to meet a large group of blueberry growers. “I felt like I was with the president,” she said. “Everybody wanted to shake his hand, like a rock star.”

For his achievements, Dr. Joseph was awarded the 1989 Sandoz Prize in Gerontology, the Stephanie Overstreet Award in Alzheimer Research, the 2000 Alex Wetherbee Award, the Glenn Foundation Award in 2002, the American Aging Association’s (AAA) Harman Research Award in 2004, the International Award for Modern Nutrition in 2005, USDA’s 2007 North Atlantic Area Scientist of the Year Award, and the 2009 GlaxoSmithKline award for flavonoid research.1

Though he had a renowned body of work, Dr. Joseph was not “your typical boring scientist,” said Dr. Shukitt-Hale. Every day he brought new ideas to the lab and encouraged the other scientists to do the same and use imagination in their work. “He was a very creative scientist, a very good friend,” she continued. “He let everybody blossom in their own way.”

“In working with Dr. Joseph, there was always a sense of adventure,” said Dr. Ingram. “He liked to push the envelope, to be provocative. Unlike so many other scientists who are advanced in their careers and run large laboratories from their desks, Jim remained by choice a “hands-on” researcher. Because of his outgoing and warm personality, he was well liked by his colleagues and by those who worked in his laboratory. He had a tremendous sense of humor and always kept those around him in great spirit.”

Though sometimes his research challenged conventional wisdom on certain topics, he was not one to shy away from speaking his mind or standing up for his work. “He thought in a bigger picture than most people,” said Dr. Shukitt-Hale. “He wasn’t afraid to think outside the box. And a lot of people are like that. But he would speak out about it.” When Dr. Joseph presented the findings from his initial research on fruits and vegetables, for example, many in the scientific community were hesitant to accept. But he stuck with the work, she added.

Dr. Joseph was born in West Virginia and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Fairmont State College, a master’s degree from West Virginia University, and his doctorate degree in behavioral neuroscience from the University of South Carolina.1 Before his time at HNRCA at Tufts, Dr. Joseph also served as a lead researcher at the Gerontology Research Center (GRC) of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), Lederle Laboratories, the Armed Forces Radiobiological Laboratory, and American Cyanamid, which was later acquired by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.2 He authored or co-authored more than 260 scientific articles and 40 book chapters, as well as 2 books.1

Dr. Joseph is survived by his wife, Marlene. AAA has set up a memorial fund to honor Dr. Joseph. Donations will support AAA presentations and awards on current research similar to that of Dr. Joseph. More information is available at: JimJosephFund.htm.

—Lindsay Stafford
  1. James A. Joseph. Society for Neuroscience website. Available at: www. Accessed August 18, 2010.

  2. Remembering Jim Joseph–author, scientist, originator of the power of pigment. The Wild Blueberry Association of North America blog. Available at: Accessed August 18, 2010.