A balanced diet and regular exercise can protect the
brain and ward off mental disorders, a new review of
"Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that
affects the brain," said Fernando Gómez-Pinilla,
a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science,
who has spent years studying the effects of food, exercise
and sleep on the brain. His round-up of the scientific
truth behind the brain-food connection confirms a lot
of what has been suggested before.
"Diet, exercise and sleep have the potential
to alter our brain health and mental function,"
he said. "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."
Gómez-Pinilla analyzed more than 160 studies
about food’s affect on the brain, an analysis
published in the July issue of the journal Nature Reviews
Omega-3s and mental health
fatty acids — found in salmon, walnuts and kiwi
fruit — provide many benefits, including improving
learning and memory and helping to fight against such
mental disorders as depression and mood disorders, schizophrenia,
and dementia, said Gómez-Pinilla, a member of
UCLA’s Brain Research Institute and the Brain
Injury Research Center.
Synapses in the
brain connect neurons, and provide critical functions;
much learning and memory occur at synapses, Gómez-Pinilla
"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," Gómez-Pinilla said. "Omega-3
fatty acids are essential for normal brain function."
"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," Gómez-Pinilla said. "A
deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids in rodents results
in impaired learning and memory."
Children and omega-3s
Children who had increased amounts of omega-3 fatty
acids performed better in school, in reading, spelling,
and behavior, he said.
Improvement in school performance was observed in
a group of students receiving omega-3 fatty acids, according
to preliminary results from a study in England. In another
study, 396 children in Australia, ages 6 to 12, who
were given a drink with omega-3 fatty acids and other
nutrients (iron, zinc, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6,
B12 and C) showed higher scores on tests that measured
verbal intelligence and learning and memory after six
months and one year than a control group of students
who did not receive the nutritional drink. This study
was also conducted with 394 children in Indonesia. The
results showed higher test scores in both boys and girls
in Australia, but in only girls in Indonesia.
Getting omega-3 fatty acids from food rather than
from capsule supplements can be more beneficial, providing
additional nutrients, Gómez-Pinilla said.
Scientists are learning which components of omega-3
fatty acids seem to be especially important. One is
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is abundant in salmon.
DHA, which reduces oxidative stress and enhances synaptic
plasticity and learning and memory, is the most abundant
omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes in the brain.
Controlled meal skipping or intermittent caloric
restriction might provide health benefits, he said.
Excess calories can reduce the flexibility of synapses
and increase the vulnerability of cells to damage by
causing the formation of free-radicals. Moderate caloric
restriction could protect the brain by reducing oxidative
damage to cellular proteins, lipids and nucleic acids,
The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative damage.
Blueberries have been shown to have strong antioxidant
capacity, he noted. And smaller food portions with the
appropriate nutrients seem to be beneficial for the
brain’s molecules, he said.
Junk food, junk brain
In contrast to the healthy effects of diets that are
rich in omega-3 fatty acids, diets with high contents
of trans fats and saturated fats adversely affect cognition,
"Junk food" and fast
food negatively affect the brain’s synapses,
said Gómez-Pinilla, who eats fast food less often
since conducting this research.
Brain synapses and several molecules related to learning
and memory are adversely affected by unhealthy diets,
Emerging research indicates that when the effects
of diet on the brain are combined with the effects from
exercise and a good night’s sleep, you can strengthen
the brain’s synapses and provide other cognitive
benefits, he added.
He noted that while some people have extremely good
genes, most of us are not so lucky, and need a balanced
diet, regular exercise and a good night’s sleep.
The research was funded by the National Institutes
of Health’s National Institute of Neurological
Disorders and Stroke.