Food and Behaviour Research

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A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning

Molteni R, Barnard RJ, Ying Z, Roberts CK, G√≥mez-Pinilla F (2002) Neuroscience.  2002;112(4): 803-14. 

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We have investigated a potential mechanism by which a diet, similar in composition to the typical diet of most industrialized western societies rich in saturated fat and refined sugar (HFS), can influence brain structure and function via regulation of neurotrophins. We show that animals that learn a spatial memory task faster have more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) mRNA and protein in the hippocampus.

Two months on the HFS diet were sufficient to reduce hippocampal level of BDNF and spatial learning performance. Consequent to the action of BDNF on synaptic function, downstream effectors for the action of BDNF on synaptic plasticity were reduced proportionally to BDNF levels, in the hippocampus of rats maintained on the HFS diet between 2 and 24 months.

In particular, animals maintained on the HFS diet showed a decrease in levels of: (i) synapsin I mRNA and protein (total and phosphorylated), important for neurotransmitter release; (ii) cyclic AMP-response element-binding protein (CREB) mRNA and protein (total and phosphorylated); CREB is required for various forms of memory and is under regulatory control of BDNF; (iii) growth-associated protein 43 mRNA, important for neurite outgrowth, neurotransmitter release, and learning and memory.

Diet-related changes were specific for the hippocampus consequent to its role in memory formation, and did not involve neurotrophin-3, another member of the neurotrophin family.

Our results indicate that a popularly consumed diet can influence crucial aspects of neuronal and behavioral plasticity associated with the function of BDNF.