Forget what you've heard about "brain food"...turns out, the best food for your brain may be none at all. New research on intermittent fasting and exercise show some surprising brain benefits of depriving yourself of calories -- at least occasionally.
"We have evidence that exercise and probably intermittent fasting increase the number of mitochondria in neurons," said Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore.
So far, Mattson and other researchers have studied the phenomenon in animals, and are beginning to understand how intermittent fasting in rats and mice can enhance learning and memory, and how it can decrease the risk of those brain functions degenerating.
The evidence is so compelling, in fact, that Mattson is close to launching a human trial in which he hypothesizes that intermittent fasting may improve performance on cognitive tests and change neural network connections and markers of oxidative stress and inflammation.
The basic premise, presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, is that the stress of fasting and exercise helps the brain adapt and improve the energy flow of neurons. Specifically, fasting and exercise seem to increase the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), thought to be key in the growth and division of mitochondria.
"That seems to be important for BDNF's effect on learning and memory," Mattson said.
The upcoming human study would seek people who are at risk for cognitive impairment -- obese individuals between 55 and 70 with insulin resistance who are not being treated for diabetes. They would be put through "a battery of cognitive tests," Mattson said, while their brains were scanned by fMRI.
They'd also undergo the scan in a resting state. Then, after two months with half the group on a 5-2 diet (eating a calorie-restricted diet for two non-consecutive days a week and unconstrained eating the other five days), the researchers would repeat the evaluations and compare them to the control group.