Improve Brain Cell Function
Two crucial things you ought to know for brain cell ageing
I hope you all enjoyed your weekend! I had the most amazing experience that I want to share with you, I was in my own wonderland on Sunday when I visited The Society of Neuroscience’s exhibit in Chelsea - Life of a Neuron. It is worth a visit if you’re in NYC, it was absolutely spectacular!
Moving onto todays topics, have you ever wondered how different foods in your diet affect your brain? The brain is an extraordinary organ in charge of an astounding number of functions in your body. This is why the brain requires high-quality nutrients found in the food you eat.
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Just as there is no magic pill to prevent cognitive decline, no single almighty brain food can ensure a sharp brain as you age.
However, we now have substantial evidence that points us towards what not to eat and what we should be eating to nourish our brain cells and that is what we will dive into today.
To get a sneak peak into this topic, check out our latest episode of The Neuro Experience podcast where Shawn Stevenson discusses what we should be nourishing our brain with.
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The relationship between nutrition and brain health is well established and even more poignant in our ageing population, where there is an increased risk of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. More and more people are turning towards brain healthy diets such as the MIND diet - a brain-healthy diet that stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It’s a hybrid of the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet, and it focuses on food groups in each diet that can boost your brainpower and protect it from age-related problems like Alzheimer’s disease.
Fat and Sugar will Damage your Neurons
Does consuming diets high in fat and sugar affect the brain region that stores memories, the hippocampus? To answer this question, a group of scientists fed rats a diet high in fat and sugar and did various experiments to look what happened to their hippocampi after they ate this diet.
They divided the rats into two groups and gave one group a normal diet (the control group) and the other group a high-fat-and-sugar diet. Having a control group was important, because they needed to compare the hippocampi between rats eating the two diets, in order to see changes. It was also important to have several rats in each group, because the hippocampus may look slightly different in each individual rat. They used 20 rats for their control group and 22 rats for our high-fat/high-sugar group. The control group ate diet consisting of a balanced and nutritious rat food used in laboratories; as well as plain water to drink.
The second group ate diet with lard (pork fat used for cooking) added to their normal food, and fructose (the main sugar present in sugary drinks) added to their drinking water. Both groups ate these diets for 7 days, and had as much food and water as they wanted. Rats that ate the high-fat-and-sugar diet became obese, ate more food, and drank more water than rats that ate a normal diet. These results show that rats like and consume lots of fatty and sugary foods, and become obese after eating those foods, similar to humans.
For their first experiment, they stained the neurons of the hippocampus with different types of dyes, in order to study their size, shape, and structures under a microscope. They compared rats that ate the high-fat-and-sugar diet with rats that ate the normal diet and looked for changes in the neurons.
Astoundingly, they found that neurons from rats that ate the high-fat-and-sugar diet had shorter and thinner dendrites. Amazingly, they also found that the neurons of these rats had fewer synapses at the ends of their dendrites! Dendrites and synapses are necessary for neuronal communication and memory formation, because dendrites transmit signals and synapses are the actual sites of neuronal communication. These results showed that eating high-fat-and-sugar diet had a negative effect on neurons in the hippocampus.
Think about this: if neurons in the hippocampus of rats that ate the high-fat-and-sugar diet have fewer and thinner dendrites, it is possible that those neurons are not very efficient at transmitting information. Also, because these neurons have fewer synapses, they will probably be unable to communicate effectively with other neurons.
Omega-3 meets microglia
A study (in mice!) investigates the effect of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids — the EPA & DHA — on microglia.
Microglia are brain cells that do not send electrical impulses. They were once thought to be little more than structural support, but turn out to be very important in many processes of brain maintenance, such as removing waste products, damaged cells, and infections. Given the breadth of microglial expertise, they might play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers looked at two groups of old male mice: one group received a control diet, the other one a very similar diet with the addition of dietary fish hydrolysate (which, in this case, is a fancy term for an omega-3 supplement derived from marine bycatch). The mice received the supplement for a total of 10 weeks, with the last two of those weeks devoted to long- and short-term memory tests. Following the testing period, the researchers studied the brains and intestines of the mice.
The short- and long-term memory of the control mice declined. In the omega-3 mice, it didn’t.
Omega-3 supplementation is good for lowering inflammation. The same was true in this study, especially in the intestine, which was less ‘leaky’ in the old omega-mice.
Finally, in the brains of the omega-3 mice, the researchers found that the microglia stayed in good shape, or, as the scientists call it, a homeostatic microglial phenotype. The microglia also kept up a nice and balanced level of phagocytosis (cleaning up cellular waste and removing pathogens).
The authors conclude:
This study provides further evidence for the understanding of the mechanisms of action of the marine hydrolysate containing n-3 LC-PUFAs and low molecular weight peptides on inflammation and cognitive functions during aging.
Sounds good, but there are some pretty serious caveats:
Mice are not human. Remains to be confirmed in humans.
All mice were male. It’s not inconceivable that hormones might affect this, or, vice versa, that omega-3’s can uniquely affect certain aspects of female physiology. (Which is quite understudied so far.)
All the mice gained weight and lost muscle. Could be age. Could be diet. Could be both. Does this affect the omega-3 influence?
The sample size was fairly small with 21 mice in total.
Neuro Athletes, the brain is an organ that changes rapidly, constantly forming new synapses as we learn and form memories, and diets high in saturated fats and sugar interfere with the brain’s ability to change and adapt quickly.
Eat your greens, sleep, eat your oiily fish and steer clear of high-fat-and-sugar diets to nourish your brain cells.
Until next time,