New research has come forward indicating that diets high in fat or sugar have the potential to damage even more than just physical health. A study conducted by Oregon State University discovered that these diets might result in impairment of one’s everyday brain functions.
It’s All About the Gut: Bacteria and the Brain
The team at Oregon State found that high fat or sugar diets altered the way in which gut bacteria acted. These changes in gut bacteria were associated with alterations in one’s “cognitive flexibility,”or how adept a person is at adapting to changing situations.
An example of cognitive flexibility would be the ability to deal with a forced change in one’s commute to work. Suppose a road is blocked off due to construction. Someone with a large amount of cognitive flexibility would be able to adapt quickly and determine a different and acceptable route with ease. Someone without much cognitive flexibility would take a much longer time to determine a different route and the process would be increasingly stressful.
A Study of 2-month-old Male Mice
Professor Kathy Magnusson, the main investigator for the study, and her colleagues at Oregon State divided the mice into three separate groups. One group was fed a high-fat diet, another was fed a high-sugar diet and the other was given a normal diet. The study examined the feces of each of the groups before and after the study began to get an accurate gauge of the bacteria’s makeup in each of the mice’s digestive systems. The study used three cognitive tests that were administered before, during and after the study.
The groups of mice that were given diets high in fat or sugar both started to show declines in cognitive ability about four weeks into the study. The team used young mice that should usually be able to fend off the effects of cognitive decline easier than older mice. Had the mice been older, it is possible the effects could have been even more significant.
Of all the mental facilities examined in the study, the mice that were fed diets high in sugar and fat showed the most reduction in cognitive flexibility. Along with this change, they also came out with reductions in their short- and long-term memory.
Gut Bacteria May Play A Major Role In Cognitive Ability
“Bacteria can release compounds that act as neurotransmitters, stimulate sensory nerves or the immune system, and affect a wide range of biological functions,” said Kathy Magnusson, the head researcher in the study and a professor College of Veterinary Medicine at OSU. “We’re not sure just what messages are being sent, but we are tracking down the pathways and the effects.”
Additional Studies On Gut Bacteria And Brain Function
A recent study conducted at the California Institute of Technology discovered that bacteria in the gut play an important role in the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that effects both emotions and behavior. It is thought to play a major role in depression and other emotional disorders.
The study looked at two separate groups of mice. One of the groups had normal levels of gut bacteria, while the other had no gut bacteria at all. The study discovered that the brain produced around 60 percent less bacteria in mice without any gut bacteria than in those with healthy bacteria. Once the team restored the bacteria to the mice that initially had none, their serotonin levels returned to normal.
The team hopes to determine how their findings may be important to the human brain and the understanding of how gut bacteria influences cognitive functioning. Depression is a major problem in the United States and many complaints have been made about the lack of reliability for antidepressants and the length of time until they begin to work.
While both of these studies point toward a strong relationship between diet and cognitive functioning, the research was conducted on mice, not humans. As more studies like this come forward, the potential for changes in the human diet and its relationship to brain function will become clearer.
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