Habitual late-night snacking could damage a type of memory and learning, a new study suggests.
Eating meals at odd hours has already been linked to metabolic problems.
This, though, is some of the first evidence of potential psychological effects.
Dr Dawn Loh, the study’s first author, said:
“We have provided the first evidence that taking regular meals at the wrong time of day has far-reaching effects for learning and memory.
Since many people find themselves working or playing during times when they’d normally be asleep, it is important to know that this could dull some of the functions of the brain.”
The study, carried out on mice, tested their ability to recognise novel objects.
Those fed when they usually slept showed worse memory performance.
The late-night-snacking-mice also had problems filing the objects away in long-term memory.
Professor Christopher Colwell, one of the study’s author, said:
“Modern schedules can lead us to eat around the clock so it is important to understand how the timing of food can impact cogitation.
For the first time, we have shown that simply adjusting the time when food is made available alters the molecular clock in the hippocampus and can alter the cognitive performance of mice.”
The mice that snacked at night also had worse sleep.
Their sleep was more fragmented and they require more naps during the day.
Researchers will need to carry out tests on human subjects to see if the effect is the same.
However, we already know from other studies that shift-workers under-perform on cognitive tests.
We also know that eating less at night may help to reduce the mental problems caused by lack of sleep.
The study was published in the journal eLife (Loh et al., 2015).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Brain image from Shutterstock