A study was conducted to uncover how sugar can influence the brain. As the result, the researchers suggest that a very sugary diet over the long term could affect the brain’s ability to learn and remember information. The findings, published in Journal of Physiology, also show that omega-3 fatty acids may help to negate the effect.
The suggestion follows tests in the laboratory comparing high-fructose corn syrup, which is six times sweeter than cane sugar and a common ingredient in processed foods, with omega-3 fatty acids, known to aid memory and learning.
The researchers were studying the impact of high-fructose corn syrup on rats, which have similar brain chemistry to humans. In an experiment, one group of rats had a sugary diet for six weeks and another was fed healthily.
At the start of the study, the University of California team tested how well the rats navigated a maze – placing landmarks to help them learn the way.
Six weeks later, they tested the rats’ ability to recall the route. The result showed that the rats were unable to think clearly and recall the route they had learned six weeks earlier. Their brain cells might have trouble signaling each other. They navigated the maze much slower than the second group of rats which received omega-3 fatty acids.
Study co-author Professor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla said the rats fed just a sugary diet were slower and their brains had declined.
He said: ‘Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information. A closer look at the rats’ brain tissue suggested that insulin had lost much of its power to influence the brain cells. The authors suspect that 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.
However, the study also suggests that eating foods rich in omega-3 regularly could protect the brain from the negative effects of fructose.
‘Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think,’ said Prof Gomez-Pinilla. ‘Adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage.’
Gomez-Pinilla practices what he preaches, and says he maintains a diet low in sugar and high in fatty acids. He recommends taking one gram of DHA per day and eating foods like salmon, walnuts and flaxseeds that are rich in DHA.
This study is the first to uncover how the sweetener influences the brain. The inexpensive liquid is six times sweeter than cane sugar and is commonly added to processed foods such as soft drinks.
‘We’re not talking about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants,’ said Prof Gomez-Pinilla.
‘We’re concerned about high-fructose corn syrup that is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative.’