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New research, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, helps explain why obesity and unhealthy diets, especially during adolescence, are associated with the onset of mental health disorders, and neurological conditions.
The study’s authors focused on the brain’s prefrontal cortex since earlier research revealed high-fat diets can diminish executive task performance in teens. Executive tasks include strategizing, decision making, problem solving, and working memory.
Our prefrontal cortex is still developing during adolescence, so the quality of food consumed by teenagers is important for its maturation. This is worrying given a significant decline in the quality of our Western diet over the past several decades.
The high-fat content of many foods is a particular concern. The researchers found that adolescent mice on a high-fat diet had fewer prefrontal cortex neurons expressing a protein called reelin. Without adequate reelin our brain’s synapses* appear to lose plasticity, or their ability to grow stronger or weaker in response to ever changing metal activity.
“We saw that plasticity in the prefrontal cortex was impaired in animals fed high-fat foods during adolescence; and quite remarkably we then observed that when restoring reelin levels, both synaptic plasticity and cognitive functions went back to normal,” said researcher Pascale Chavis, INMED Institute, Marseille, France.
The evidence that reelin is vulnerable to the negative impact of an unhealthy diet is troubling; it implies kids consuming an excess of fatty foods may not only become obese, but develop cognitive and psychological problems as they age.
“Our findings...suggest that a careful nutritional balance during this sensitive [adolescent] period is pivotal for reaching the full capacity of adult prefrontal functions,” says Marie Labouesse, lead study author.
* A synapse is a junction between nerve cells, a tiny gap over which communication impulses pass.
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