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Can food improve brain health?

Posted Sep 09 2008 2:14am

In other words, may some foods be specifically good for brain function?

For a great in-depth review of the effects of food on the brain you can check out Fernando Gomez-Pinilla’s recent article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (reference below). Here is an overview of the state off the research.

Several components of diet seem to have a positive effect on brain function.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These acids are normal constituents of cell membranes and are essential for normal brain function. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish (salmon), kiwi, and walnuts. Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes in the brain. The human body produces DHA but not enough. So we are dependent on the DHA that we get from what we eat.

A randomized double-blind controlled trial (which means seriously conducted scientific study) is currently looking at the effect of taking omega-3 fatty acids on children’s performance at school in England. Preliminary results (Portwood, 2006) suggest that the group of children who received omega-3 fatty acids showed some level of improvement in school performance compared to the group of children who received a placebo. More research is needed to confirm these results but they look promising.

Fatty acids are also regarded as a promising but untested treatment as mood stabilizer. Hibbeln (1998) showed a negative correlation between fish consumption (i.e., omega-3 fatty acid intake) and major depression in many countries including the United States, Canada, Germany and France. A negative correlation means that as consumption of omega-3 decreases, the prevalence of major depression increases. Note that a correlation does not imply causation: we cannot conclude that low omega-3 consumption causes major depression.

Folic acid (or folate)

Folate is generated by the liver, after the intestine has absorbed vitamin B. It is found in spinach, orange juice and yeast. Adequate levels of folate are essential for brain function.

Corrada and colleagues (2005) have shown that people who take more folate than others have less risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Note again that this is a correlation so more research is needed to determine whether folate is indeed responsible for the risk reduction.


These are found in cocoa, green tea, Ginko biloba tree, citrus fruits, wine and dark chocolate. The antioxidant effects of flavonols have been shown in vitro (in the test tube) but more research is needed to establish the effects of flavonols in vivo (in a living organism). So far, Ginko biloba extracts have been shown to reduce memory impairment in mice…with mixed effects in humans, at best.

Antioxidant foods

The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative damage. This is why antioxidant food has become popular for their positive effects on brain function.

Antioxidants are found in a variety of food: Alpha lipoic is found in spinach, broccoli and potatoes; Vitamin E is found in vegetable oils, nuts, green leafy vegetables; Curcumin is found in the curry spice; Vitamin C is found in citrus fruit and several plants and vegetables. Berries are well known for their antioxidant capacity but it is not clear which of their many components has an effect on cognition.

Guts and the brain

Gut hormones such as leptin (which sends signals to the brain to reduce appetite), ghrelin (which acts as an appetite stimulant) or insulin (which is secreted by the anticipation of meals and during digestion) have been found to enhance memory formation through their action on the hippocampus. As you know, the hippocampus is one of the brain structures crucial for spatial learning and memory formation.

These gut hormones do have an effect on the plasticity (the ability to change) of the connections between neurons in the hippocampus.

Final note of caution

Please note that most of the studies showing positive effects of all these nutrients on the brain have been conducted in mice. A few human studies are now published but more research is clearly needed to establish and understand the effects of specific foods on brain function.


- Corrada, M., Kawas, C., Hallfrisch, J., Muller, D., & Brookmeyer, R. (2005). Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease with high folate intake: The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Alzheimers & Dementia, 1, A4.

- Hibbeln, J. R. (1998). Fish consumption and major depression. Lancet, 351, 1213.

- Gómez-Pinilla, F. (2008). Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 568-578.

- Portwood, M. M. (2006). The role of dietary fatty acids in children’s behavior and learning. Nutr. Health, 18, 233-247.

Pascale Michelon --- This article was written by Pascale Michelon, Ph. D., for SharpBrains. Dr. Michelon, Copyright 2008. Dr. Michelon has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology and has worked as a Research Scientist at Washington University in Saint Louis, in the Psychology Department. She conducted several research projects to understand how the brain makes use of visual information and memorizes facts. She is now an Adjunct Faculty at Washington University, and teaches Memory Workshops in numerous retirement communities in the St Louis area.

More articles on the topic:

- A Multi-Pronged Approach to Brain Health

- Overview of Nutritional Supplements and Brain Fitness

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