The connection between what and when we eat, and the structure and functionality of the brain, is one of the most complex relationships in modern medicine. But understanding this relationship will lead to fewer diseases, healthier minds, and longer lives. One regimen in particular, Intermittent Fasting (IF), has been shown to bolster the creation of new neurons (a process known as neurogenesis) in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in short and long term memory (and also one of the first casualties of Alzheimer’s disease).
Intermittent Fasting is a type of diet in which one regularly forgoes food for a certain period of time, usually somewhere between 14 and 18 hours. While it’s been known that IF increases the rate of hippocampal neurogenesis, the precise nature of the relationship is still poorly understood. To remedy this, researchers from the Universities of Singapore and Sungkyunkwan in Korea took a closer look at how IF affected change in the hippocampi of mice over a three month period in new research published in Brain and Behavior.
The mice were randomly assigned to four dietary groups: a control with no restrictions, and 12-hour, 16-hour and 24-hour fasted diets. The 12- and 16-hour groups fasted from either 3PM or 7PM to 7AM the next day, while the 24-hour group fasted every other day. Despite the varied schedules, all the mice ended up eating roughly the same number of calories.
As expected, all three dietary groups showed increased levels of neurogenesis in the hippocampus, with the most significant change in 16-hour mice. To better understand what was going on, the authors used a procedure called an immunoblot analysis, which can accurately detect certain proteins in a given tissue sample.
The analysis revealed an increased activation of the Notch signaling pathway, a type of cell-to-cell communication that’s important to cell differentiation, the process by which immature cells, like stem cells, take on a permanent form and function. In humans, Notch signaling is related to hippocampal neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to create new connections, allowing us to learn and form new memories.
We still have a long way to go before fully understanding how our diets affect the structure and function of our brains. Studies like this one can help us make better-informed decisions for leading healthier and longer lives, while retaining our memories and maintaining cognitive faculties.
The study, “Intermittent fasting increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis“, was authored by Sang‐Ha Baik, Vismitha Rajeev, David Yang‐Wei Fann, Dong‐Gyu Jo, and Thiruma V. Arumugam.