Get smarter by eating less

Study Title
Chronic intermittent fasting improves cognitive functions and brain structures in mice.
Study Authors
Liaoliao Li, Zhi Wang, Zhiyi Zuo
Study Model Animal - Mouse
Abstract Link https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23755298

 

Why spend money on supplements, drugs, or food when you can boost your brain function (and save up a lot of money) by doing intermittent fasting? Also, I’ve read somewhere that fat people are perceived as dumber than their slimmer colleagues, is that true?

I think Liaoliao Li addressed both questions in the scientific publication titled “Chronic intermittent fasting improves cognitive functions and brain structures in mice” (which is free to access here).

     

    Does fat = dumb?

    Obesity is a big problem in the 21st century, but I don’t think we should really blame ourselves for putting on weight – our bodies were designed to survive periods without food and stock up on body fat when food was available, to survive the next famine cycle.

    However, we weren’t built for factory-designed, processed food which aims to make you addicted (it’s all about selling more and making profit now, isn’t it?). My concern is how obesity impacts our thinking and whether it could actually make us dumber.

     

    Feel the hunger to be smarter?

    On the other hand we have intermittent fasting, which in the simplest possible way could be defined as not eating food for a given amount of time (e.g. we fast every night when we sleep and we break the fast in the morning). In Liaoliao’s article that’s a period of one day with no food, followed by day with food, followed by day without food etc which is also known as alternate day fasting. Does it have a positive impact on the brain performance?

    Liaoliao tested three different nutrition protocols on mice: 1) freely available standard food, 2) freely available high fat food, and 3) alternate day fasting with freely available standard food on feeding days.

     

    The results

    Mice from the intermittent fasting group had better memory and learning as assessed by the Barnes test and fear conditioning.

    Barnes test is a very simple, non-invasive test (which provides a lot of information). A mouse is placed in the center of a platform with 20 equally spaced holes. Then it’s trained to remember one of the holes (‘target zones’) with the use of sound and light. That’s it. It is truly a simple test but the outcomes can be shocking. For example, check out the results of a control vs injured mouse in the image below. 

    Are you curious about ‘fear conditioning’ test? Let me know in the comments section and I will describe it there.

    Mice on the alternate day fasting protocol had thicker CA1 pyramidal cell layer, higher expression of drebrin and lower oxidative stress than mice, which had access to regular diet.

    Translation: CA1 is a region in the hippocampus and pyramidal cell is a type of neuron involved in a number of functions including cognition. Thicker pyramidal cell layer -> better cognitive performance?

    Drebrin is a protein involved in the process of neuronal growth: more drebrin -> more pyramidal cells -> thicker pyramidal cell layer -> better cognitive performance?

    Oxidative stress destroys us everyday. Well, sort of, as we have mechanisms to deal with harmful particles. By not eating for prolonged periods of time we give our bodies more time to repair the damage, as the focus can be transferred from food digestion and nutrient distribution to cleaning up the mess in the form of damaged cells.

     

    What about the fat mice?

    Mice on a high fat diet became obese and with hyperlipidemia. However, as pointed by authors, these mice didn’t experience learning difficulties or memory impairment. They didn’t have changes to their brain structures or any difference in oxidative stress when compared with control mice which had access to regular food.

     

    All of this points us in a direction of: 

    • No, your obese colleagues aren’t dumber – we are all equally dumb whether we are slim or fat 🙂 – but you know workaholics who go for hours and hours without food, working all the time? Maybe they are the ones who benefit and are ‘less dumb’ than the rest of us thanks to skipping lunch/dinner?
    • Intermittent fasting (alternate fasting) could show benefits for your memory and learning; what isn’t clear, however, is whether we could expect an improvement in our abilities (as stated in the publication’s title) or maybe it’s just more of a maintenance benefit – keeping your brain young and sharp as you get older. Hm, which one is it?

     

    What do you think?

    Greetings,
    Dr Bart Alright

     

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