Too Much Sugar Can Slow Down Learning and Memory, New Study Says

By Lisa Franchi on March 21, 2018

Previous studies have shown that too much sugar can lead to obesity, diabetes, and problems in the liver. But a new study suggests that it can affect the brain function too.

High Fructose Sugar and Brain Function

In an experiment on rats, researchers from the University of California found that sugary diet can lead to memory and learning problems. For six weeks, one group of rats were provided with sugary foods (which consist of high-fructose corn syrup) while the other group had a healthy diet. At the start of the study, the rats were taught how to navigate a maze by placing landmarks in it. After six weeks, the researchers tested how well the rats recalled the route.

After the trial, the researchers looked into the brain structure of the rats that consumed high-fructose corn syrup and found that it has changed. Their brain cells also had trouble sending signals to each other, preventing the rats to clearly recall the route in the maze. Their findings show that the rats fed with sugary foods were slower and their brains have declined, whereas those that were fed with a healthy diet did well in the maze.

How Does it Affect Brain Function?

Their theory was that too much fructose prevents insulin from regulating the consumption and storage of sugar by the brain cells, which is highly necessary for processing thoughts and emotions.

’It’s like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases.’ said Prof Gomez-Pinilla.

High-fructose syrup which was used in the study is six times sweeter than the cane sugar. It is also commonly used as preservatives and sweeteners for processed foods and soft drinks. The extreme sweetness and inexpensive cost of high-fructose sugar makes it a great choice for many manufacturers of processed foods.

Professor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, the study co-author explained that eating a high-fructose diet for a long period of time can affect the brain’s ability to learn and recall information. But the good news is that eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can counteract this effect, the professor pointed out.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids to Counteract this Effect

When people talk about omega-3 fatty acids, they usually refer to fish oil. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that are commonly found in plant oil and seafood such as salmon, tuna, halibut, nuts, and more. These essential acids were found to help in the development of brain function and prevention of heart diseases. Prof Gomez-Pinilla recommends eating fatty fish to prevent the brain’s deterioration caused by high-fructose diet. Instead of processed desserts, he suggests having yoghurt for snacks.

Nonetheless, not all types of sugar are bad for the health. The naturally occurring fructose in fruits for instance, contains antioxidants that promote health.

According to the researchers, their study suggests that what people eat affect how they think. While the study involved rats, these animals have the same brain chemistry with humans. Their findings were published in the Journal of Physiology.

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