The Type Of Dietary Fats That Damage Your Memory

A study shows that “good” or healthy fats and “bad” fats affect brain cells in different ways.

A study shows that “good” or healthy fats and “bad” fats affect brain cells in different ways.

Diets rich in saturated fat and or refined carbohydrates are linked to neurodegenerative disorders, neuroinflammation, and cognitive dysfunction.

In contrast, diets rich in polyunsaturated fats such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may have neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects.

A study shows that “good” or healthy fats and “bad” fats affect brain cells in different ways.

The research suggests that high-fat diets will reduce polyunsaturated fatty acids and increase saturated fatty acids in the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is part of the brain important for the formation of new memories and learning processes.

The finding may explain the connection between high-fat foods and memory impairment, especially in older people.

Moreover, the study found that omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) has the ability to reduce the negative effect of high fat foods-induced inflammation in brain cells.

Previously they showed that eating highly processed foods was linked to higher levels of inflammation in the brain accompanied with memory loss, but DHA supplements averted the issue.

DHA can lower inflammation by acting directly on microglia in response to issues such as traumatic brain injury, neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s, and brain infections.

Microglia are types of immune cells that are involved in brain development, and inflammatory responses to brain injury.

Dr Ruth Barrientos, the study’s senior author, said:

“The cool thing about this paper is that for the first time, we’re really starting to tease these things apart by cell type.

Our lab and others have often looked at the whole tissue of the hippocampus to observe the brain’s memory-related response to a high-fat diet.

But we’ve been curious about which cell types are more or less affected by these saturated fatty acids, and this is our first foray into determining that.”

DHA protects cells

For this study, microglia cells from animal tissue were taken and developed in the laboratory.

Then these microglia models were exposed to palmitic acid, the most common saturated fat in foods such as shortening, pork, beef, lard, palm oil, and cocoa butter.

The results revealed that palmitic acid caused changes in gene expression involved in the inflammatory response.

However, DHA treatment completely prevented or partially lowered alterations and so protected cells against inflammation.

Dr Michael Butler, the study’s first author, said:

“Previous work has shown that DHA is protective in the brain and that palmitic acid has been detrimental to brain cells, but this is the first time we’ve looked at how DHA can directly protect against the effects of palmitic acid in those microglia, and we see that there is a strong protective effect.

The protective effects of DHA might, in this context, be restricted to effects on gene expression related to the pro-inflammatory response as opposed to the metabolic deficits that the saturated fat also induced.”

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About the author

Mina Dean is a Nutritionist and Food Scientist. She holds a BSc in Human Nutrition and an MSc in Food Science.


The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience (Butler et al., 2023).


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This site is all about scientific research into how the mind works.

It’s mostly written by psychologist and author, Dr Jeremy Dean.

I try to dig up fascinating studies that tell us something about what it means to be human.

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