How does excess food damage cognition?

The brain structures and neural networks that mediate spatial navigation, decision making, sociality and creativity evolved, in part, to allow success in the acquisition of food.

It is suggested that the reason why excessive consumption of energy-rich foods has a negative impact on cognition is that the signaling pathways that evolved to adaptively respond to food shortages are relatively disconnected in the context of availability continuous of food. Obesity impairs cognition and increases the risk of some psychiatric disorders and dementias.

In addition, maternal and paternal obesity predispose children to poor cognitive results by molecular epigenetic mechanisms.

Neuronal signaling pathways that evolved to reinforce cognition in food insecure environments can be stimulated by intermittent fasting and exercise to support the cognitive health of current and future generations.

Setting the stage

Eating three energy-rich meals and snacks every day without the physical effort required is unusual when viewed in the light of evolution. New insights into the mechanisms of human cognition emerge when information on how food scarcity drove brain evolution is considered in light of emerging data on how dietary energy intake affects cognitive trajectories.

This knowledge includes:

1. An ecological factor that played an important role in the evolution of advanced cognitive abilities (food shortages) has been largely eliminated from the daily experiences of today’s humans and domesticated animals.

2. Overly forgiving sedentary lifestyles have a negative impact on cognition, and the underlying metabolic state and its associated poor cognitive outcomes can be transmitted epigenetically to the offspring. The possibility that this state of excessive energy consumption continues has important implications for the evolution of the brain and the cognitive trajectories of future generations.

3. Cellular and molecular signaling pathways through which the challenge of intermittent food deprivation reinforces cognition has been elucidated in animal studies of intermittent food deprivation and exercise and / or race.

4. The incorporation of feeding patterns that include intermittent fasting  in the lifestyles of humans (and domesticated animals) can increase their cognitive abilities and the capacity for neuronal recovery.

The cognitive repertoire as an evolutionary adaptation to food shortages

Many animals in the wild and our human ancestors evolved in environments with sporadic food availability, so they commonly experienced prolonged periods of many days or more without food. Consequently, natural selection favored individuals able to overcome their competitors, cognitively and / or physically, when they were in a state of food deprivation.

The range of cognitive abilities throughout the animal kingdom (spatial navigation, decision-making, sociality and creativity) is largely related to the acquisition and reproduction of food. Success in the acquisition of food is closely related to reproductive success.

From a bioenergetic perspective, an important conserved adaptation to food shortage was the metabolic change from the use of glucose derived from the liver to a ketogenic state, in which fatty acids derived from adipose cells and ketones are used by neurons and muscle cells as cellular fuels to maintain cognitive performance and physical resistance, respectively. Such a metabolic change also stimulates neuronal signaling pathways that reinforce cognition.

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