In the July, 2008 issue of the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science Fernando Gómez-Pinilla summarizes the latest findings concerning the effects of various foods on the brain, noting that some foods have a drug-like effect. "Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain," Dr Gómez-Pinilla stated.
"Diet, exercise and sleep have the potential to alter our brain health and mental function. This raises the exciting possibility that changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities, protecting the brain from damage and counteracting the effects of aging."
In an analysis of over 160 studies, omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA, and ALA) emerged as significant dietary compounds to enhance learning and memory, and prevent mental disorders. "Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal brain function,” Dr Gómez-Pinilla observed. “Dietary deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids in humans has been associated with increased risk of several mental disorders, including attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. A deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids in rodents results in impaired learning and memory."
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are needed for the formation of brain cell membranes, which develop connections called synapses that are important in learning. "Omega-3 fatty acids support synaptic plasticity and seem to positively affect the expression of several molecules related to learning and memory that are found on synapses," Dr Gómez-Pinilla explained.
Dr Gómez-Pinilla noted that increasing the omega-3 fatty acid levels of children’s diets improved school performance and reduced behavioral problems. Omega-3 acids combined with iron, zinc, folic acid and other vitamins have been demonstrated to improve verbal intelligence, learning and memory test scores after six months when given to children between the ages of 6 and 12.
Other research has shown that the nutritional content of one’s diet can have effects on the health, including neurological function, of one’s descendants. "Evidence indicates that what you eat can affect your grandchildren's brain molecules and synapses,” Dr Gómez-Pinilla commented. “We are trying to find the molecular basis to explain this."
He additionally observed that reducing the amount of food we eat can be beneficial. Consuming too many calories can decrease the flexibility of the brain cells’ synapses and increase free radical damage. Although the brain is very susceptible to this damage, foods such as blueberries can help counteract it.
Another important brain nutrient is the B vitamin folic acid. Insufficient folic acid has been linked with depression and cognitive impairment, and supplementation with the vitamin has been demonstrated to be helpful in the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia. Folic acid has also been shown to enhance the effects of antidepressants.
In depressed as well as schizophrenic individuals, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a signaling molecule, is reduced. Omega-3 fatty acids as well as curcumin, a compound that occurs in the spice turmeric, can help elevate BDNF in a manner similar to antidepressant or antischizophrenic drugs. "BDNF is reduced in the hippocampus, in various cortical areas and in the serum of patients with schizophrenia," Dr Gómez-Pinilla stated. "BDNF levels are reduced in the plasma of patients with major depression."
“Understanding the molecular basis of the effects of food on cognition will help us to determine how best to manipulate diet in order to increase the resistance of neurons to insults and promote mental fitness,” Dr Gómez-Pinilla concluded.