High-fat diet in childhood may lead to mental problems, Alzheimer’s in adulthood

ZURICH — Not that parents these days need more reasons to provide their children with healthy diets, but an alarming report certainly ups the ante. A recent study on mice finds that a fat-filled diet depletes a child’s brain of an important protein and can lead to debilitating mental and memory conditions in adulthood, including Alzheimer’s.

The study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, was conducted by a team of researchers at the ETH Zurich and University of Zurich. The authors found that high concentrations of saturated fats can provide disadvantages for the prefrontal portion of the brain when tested on adolescent mice.

The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain that governs one’s executive functions, including social behavior, impulse control, decision making, and memory. “A person may have difficulty with complex learning processes, lose their inhibitions, or become aggressive, childish or compulsive,” according to the release.

Researchers developed the study by observing the effects that high-fat foods had on mice. They detected cognitive deficits in the mice as early as four weeks into their new diets. These defects were apparent even before the mice began gaining weight. Both adult mice and adolescent mice were tested. The effects were not seen in adult mice, even when obesity set in, though researchers couldn’t rule out that the diet was still not harmful to an adult’s brain.

The authors of the study note that an adolescent prefrontal cortex is much more dependent on a key protein in order to function and develop properly. “We think this adolescent vulnerability to high-fat foods might be due to the hypersensitivity of a protein known as reelin,” lead author Marie Labouesse said in a release. The researchers consider reelin a “key player in the regulation of normal brain functions.”

The significance of the protein led researcher and University of Zurich professor Urs Meyer to warn readers of the study: “Although more studies on this topic are definitely needed, high-fat diets could potentially exacerbate the reelin and synaptic deficits in patients with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease or even aggravate cognitive anomalies.”

A mouse’s brain is considered comparable to the human’s brain because “as in humans, the prefrontal cortex in mice matures mainly during adolescence,” says Meyer. The neuronal structures affected by fatty foods are also identical in mice and humans, the release adds. Meyer admitted that the diet fed to the mice was highly exaggerated and that few children actually partake in diets heavily dominated by dangerous fats.