A High-Fat, Refined Sugar Diet Reduces Hippocampal Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

Molteni, R., Barnard, R., Ying, Z., Roberts, C., & Gómez-Pinilla, F. (2002). A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal , neuronal plasticity, and learning. Neuroscience, 112 (4), 803–814.

Article review by Kristy Snyder Colling, Ph.D. and Robert Coben, Ph.D.

Link to Article: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12088740/

The average American diet is high in saturated fats and refined sugars (HFS). There is mounting evidence that this diet is detrimental to our health in many ways – from inducing insulin resistance and free radical production in the liver to affecting brain function and facilitating cognitive decline. Indeed, Molteni and colleagues (2002) demonstrated some of the effects of a HFS diet on brain function in an animal model:

The researchers completed an experiment in which rats completed a water maze. Essentially, they swam around in a pool until they found a submerged escape platform. Whether they found the platform and how long it took them to find the platform was recorded. Then, the rats were divided into two groups. One group was fed a HFS diet and the other group was fed a low-fat, complex carbohydrate (LFCC) diet. Their performance on the water maze was reassessed at 2 months, 6 months, or 2 years. After which, histology analyses were conducted on their brain tissues. These analyses focused mainly on the hippocampus, which is involved in associative learning including the spatial learning necessary to complete the maze. The results indicated that rats fed the HFS diet performed worse on the water maze than those feed the LFCC diet, such that it took them longer to learn the location of the platform, were less likely to find platform at follow- up tests, and, if they did find the platform, it took them longer to find it. These findings were reflected in the results of the histology analyses. The researchers found less brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) and CREB transcription factor in the hippocampi of the rats fed the HFS diet. Indeed, time to find platform correlated with reduced hippocampal BDNF levels. The deficits were seen as early as 2 months and increased with duration of the HFS diet.

It appears that the adverse effects of a HFS diet are due to its effects on brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) and CREB transcription factor. BDNF plays a role in axonal growth and neurotransmitter release. It converts changes in electrical activity to enable long-lasting changes in synaptic strength and function. Essentially, it helps neurons talk to each other, which is crucial for efficient learning. BDNF also protects neurons from oxidative stress. CREB transcription factor plays a role in neuronal resistance to insult and disease. Therefore, by eating a HFS diet, we not only hurt the ability of our neurons to function efficiently but also leave them unprotected against damage caused by oxidation or injury. The solution is a shift in the way we approach food in our daily lives.

We at Integrated Health Coaching, a division of Integrate Brain Health in Fayetteville, Arkansas can work with you to help you learn how to stop letting stress and emotions guide your food choices to impulsively intake high fat and highly refined sugars and instead help you learn how to fuel your body with nutritious, low-glycemic foods that work to reduce neuroinflammation. Please contact us at 479-225-3223 to learn more about our program!

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