A study, published in the medical journal “Molecular Psychiatry”, and released today by researchers at ETH Zurich, seems to suggest yet again that we are what we eat. This study is focussed not on waistlines but brainwaves. The results suggest an excessively fatty diet can prevent adolescent brains from fully maturing.
The pre-frontal cortex, a late-to-develop part of the mammalian brain can have its growth stunted if excessive fat is consumed during it developmental phase. This important part of our brains takes care of memory, planning, attention, impulse control and social behaviour, so its under development can have serious consequences.
Problems, identified when testing on mice, appeared after just four weeks.
According to Professor Meyer, the mice results translate well to humans. “As in humans, the prefrontal cortex in mice matures mainly during adolescence.” The executive functions attributed to this area of the brain are also similar for both mice and humans. The neuronal structures that are affected by fatty foods are also identical in both organisms. The mice were fed diets consisting of 60% fat, with excessively high levels of saturated fats, to emphasise the impact of dietary fat. In addition, researchers said behavioural problems appeared before any visible weight gain.
One of the key factors in the development of these cognitive problems is a person’s age when the fatty foods are consumed. They tend to have a particularly negative impact on the maturation of the prefrontal cortex in the period from late childhood to early adulthood. This could potentially lead to cognitive defects in later adulthood in areas such as learning and memory, personality and impulse control. Adults on the other hand, saw no comparable effect. However researcher did not rule out damage to adults brains from a similar diet.
The study did not define excessive fat consumption by giving a maximum but said that “Anyone eating fast food once a week is unlikely to be at risk.” Nevertheless, Professor Meyer thinks that much more attention should be paid to the nutrition of growing children. “During adolescence, children and young adults should have a well-balanced diet of nutritious foods.”