All consuming myths

Emma Davies reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

Can beer make you smarter? Are blueberries the key to a long and healthy life? Newspaper headlines appear almost every week that make bold claims for the next big ‘super-food’. In some cases reports are conflicting about the benefits and risk of certain substances. For example, red wine has often been cited in the news as being beneficial for cardiovascular health, yet at the same time articles report a rise in risky levels of drinking in the adult population and advise cutting down. During this Psychobiology Section symposium on diet and brain health, convened by University of Northumbria’s Philippa Jackson, researchers attempted to counter some of these myths and provide an overview of current evidence in this important area for our health.

As Daniel Lamport from the University of Reading highlighted in his talk, some newspapers did report that beer would indeed make you smarter: however, you would need to drink so much of it that your overall health would most likely be harmed. Lamport’s talk discussed evidence on flavonoids, which are found in a range of food groups, especially fruit and vegetables. These polyphenols bring about a range of benefits to physical health, including lower risk of stroke and improved heart function, but how do they affect cognitive functioning? Rodent research has demonstrated that they can reduce the impact of ageing on cognitive functioning in older animals. With our ageing population, these types of findings are promising if they can be replicated in humans. In the short term, studies have shown that blueberry juice can improve memory test performance in a typical population, while in children with ADHD, blueberries improved attention and reaction times. While more research is needed, Lamport pointed out that some of the benefits of flavonoids tend to be found in people who were not eating any to start with. In other words, they could bring about the most improvements for more at-risk groups of people who are otherwise consuming unhealthy diets.

Such healthy eating habits are often developed during the critical period of adolescence. Our eating habits during this time tend to persist into adulthood, and so it is vital that we learn to choose healthy meals. Some suggest that breakfast may be one of the most important meals, and Louise Dye of Leeds University spoke about a review of the benefits of eating breakfast. Compared with eating no breakfast, eating this meal was associated with a range of short-term improvements to attention, memory and executive functioning. For young people, breakfast interventions often involve giving children the opportunity to have the meal at school, in ‘breakfast clubs’. However, the secondary benefits might be improved social relationships, and increased academic performance. Breakfast clubs also tend to lead to better attendance at school, which of course also improves pupil performance. Dye pointed out that this means it is difficult to determine what specific nutritional components lead to the greatest benefits for children; she also highlighted that the biggest improvements are seen in more deprived areas.

Also in this symposium, Leigh Gibson from the University of Roehampton talked about links between cognition and mobility in the elderly. Gibson reported on a randomised controlled trial to test whether omega-3 fatty acid supplements could improve cognition and mobility in older women. Omego-3 is found in fish such as salmon and tuna. The researchers found that there were some really positive improvements to the walking speed and test scores on a battery of cognitive tests six months following the intervention, but some people appear to respond to the multi-nutrient intervention much better than others. More information is needed about the specific physiological effects of specific nutrients on the brain, and whether they be delivered via breakfast interventions, blueberry juices, or in tablet form.

Philippa Jackson from Northumbria University discussed the use of an accessible measure of brain imaging, near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) and its use in exploring the physiological effects of diet. This piece of equipment has the benefit of being lower in cost and easier to use than other neuroimaging techniques, thus it may be a practical way that researchers can explore how the effects of nutritional interventions, rather than relying solely on cognitive tests or behavioural measures. Jackson and her team have used NIRS to measure the effects of caffeine, fatty acids and resveratrol, which is the ‘magic ingredient’ in red wine that led the newspapers to hail it as a miracle substance. The findings of these studies suggest that it is a feasible and reliable method by which to increase our knowledge of the specific impact of our diet on the functioning of the brain. Techniques such as this allow researchers to build up a more complete picture of the impacts of specific nutrients.

We can of course expect many more attention-grabbing headlines, but rest assured that behind these news stories, our colleagues are working hard to understand more about the impacts of our diets in order to make evidence-based recommendations to improve our overall health. 

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