Researchers from the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care and the University of Toronto conducted a study comparing the cognitive abilities of rats fed a high-fat diet, similar to the unhealthy diets many humans consume, with those on a lower-fat laboratory diet. The results, published in the March 2001 issue of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (Vol.75, No.2), revealed that rats on the high-fat diet experienced significant impairments in learning and memory tasks after three months. Interestingly, the research also demonstrated that memory in the high-fat diet rats could be improved through glucose treatment.
Dr. Carol Greenwood, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto and a scientist at Baycrest Centre’s Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied Research Unit, explained the significance of these findings by emphasizing the importance of glucose for brain function. She likened the impact of saturated fatty acids impeding glucose metabolism to clogging and starving the brain of energy.
Dr. Greenwood and Dr. Gordon Winocur, a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and a professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, have previously explored the link between dietary factors and cognitive function in animals and humans through their research, published in reputable journals.
In their most recent study, the researchers aimed to test the hypothesis that a high-fat diet, by interfering with glucose utilization in the brain, could impair cognitive function. They also sought to determine whether glucose injections could enhance cognitive performance and if this enhancement was specific to certain aspects of brain function.
Dr. Winocur shared their key findings: “We found that when high-fat diet rats were injected with glucose, their cognitive function improved. What’s particularly intriguing is that the glucose had a selective effect on one specific part of the brain—the hippocampus.” The hippocampus, situated near the center of the brain, plays a crucial role in memory formation, enabling the registration and recall of memories over time.
The study involved young adult rats divided into three dietary groups: those fed high-fat foods derived from either saturated fat (beef tallow) or polyunsaturated fat (soybean oil), and those on a standard laboratory diet. All rats underwent a 21-day training period to learn a Go/No Go test, a task involving responding to a lever on a feeder. The rats had to learn when to press the lever to receive a food pellet and when not to press it to receive no reward. The test included varying interval delays to assess short-term and long-term memory.
The high-fat diet rats struggled with the Go/No Go task, particularly when the interval delays exceeded 20 seconds. Subsequently, the researchers administered glucose or saline solutions to the high-fat diet rats. Those receiving glucose displayed a general improvement in performance, with the most significant gains observed in long-term memory tasks.
Despite these promising results, Dr. Winocur cautioned against viewing glucose administration as a long-term solution to combat the memory deficits associated with a high-fat diet. He emphasized that simply consuming glucose, such as from a glass of orange juice, is not sufficient to protect the brain from the detrimental effects of such a diet.
Dr. Greenwood underscored the key takeaway from their study: “The crucial message is that modifying one’s diet and reducing fat intake is beneficial for brain function.” In other words, a healthy diet plays a vital role in maintaining cognitive health.