Attention, college students cramming between midterms and finals: Binging on soda and sweets for as little as six weeks may make you stupid.
A new study from University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) shows how a diet with high-fructose corn syrup slows the brain, hampering memory and learning.
It also explores how omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in flaxseeds and fish oil, can counteract the disruption.
“Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think,” said Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
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“Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information. But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage.”
The UCLA team focused on high-fructose corn syrup, which is six times sweeter than cane sugar, that is added to processed foods, such as barbeque sauce, condiments, and applesauce. High-fructose corn syrup is the primary sweetener used in the top selling sodas.
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“We’re not talking about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants,” explained Gomez-Pinilla, who is also a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute.
Gomez-Pinilla studied two groups of rats that each consumed a fructose solution as drinking water for six weeks.
The second group also received omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which protects against damage to the synapses. Synapses are the chemical connections between brain cells that enable memory and learning.
“DHA is essential for synaptic function — brain cells’ ability to transmit signals to one another,” Gomez-Pinilla said. “This is the mechanism that makes learning and memory possible. Our bodies can’t produce enough DHA, so it must be supplemented through our diet.”
In comparing performance in running through a maze, “The second group of rats navigated the maze much faster than the rats that did not receive omega-3 fatty acids,” Gomez-Pinilla said. “The DHA-deprived animals were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats’ ability to think clearly and recall the route they’d learned six weeks earlier.”
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He suspects that fructose is the culprit behind the DHA-deficient rats’ brain dysfunction. Eating too much fructose could block insulin’s ability to regulate how cells use and store sugar for the energy required for processing thoughts and emotions.
“Our findings suggest that consuming DHA regularly protects the brain against fructose’s harmful effects,” said Gomez-Pinilla. “It’s like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases.”
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J Physiol. 2012 May 15;590(Pt 10):2485-99. Epub 2012 Apr 2 “’Metabolic syndrome’ in the brain: deficiency in omega-3 fatty acid exacerbates dysfunctions in insulin receptor signalling and cognition.” Agrawal R, Gomez-Pinilla F. Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)
The UCLA study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.