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In animal study, high-fructose diet compromises cognitive function

Here's some nutritional news that anyone who relies on cans of Coke or Pepsi to get through the day may want to pay attention to. In an animal study, UCLA investigators found that binging on soda and sugary treats for as little as six weeks appears to impair the brain's ability to learn and remember information. And, interestingly, the damage may be minimized by adding omega-3 fatty acids to one's diet.

In the study (subscription required), which appears in the Journal of Physiology, researchers focused on high-fructose corn syrup's effect on the brain by studying two groups of rats that were fed a fructose solution as drinking water. The second group also received omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The animals had been trained on a maze twice daily for five days before starting the experimental diet, and according to a UCLA release:

Six weeks later, the researchers tested the rats' ability to recall the route and escape the maze. What they saw surprised them.

"The second group of rats navigated the maze much faster than the rats that did not receive omega-3 fatty acids," [Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD] 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."

The DHA-deprived rats also developed signs of resistance to insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar and regulates synaptic function in the brain. A closer look at the rats' brain tissue suggested that insulin had lost much of its power to influence the brain cells.

"Because insulin can penetrate the blood–brain barrier, the hormone may signal neurons to trigger reactions that disrupt learning and cause memory loss," Gomez-Pinilla said.

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.

The work is "is the first to uncover how the [fructose] influences the brain." The researchers say they're now turning their attention to the role of diet in recovery from brain trauma.

Previously: Stanford biostatistician talks about saving your aging brain
Photo by Kanko*

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