The Modern Brain: Sickly Sweet and Crystalline

Picture taken by Lauri Andler

Attempting to define the word intelligence is a complex and often difficult endeavor. Is intelligence simply the numerical result measured by an IQ test? How much of a role does working memory play in determining how “smart” or “stupid” you are? What about individuals who may perform worse than their peers on cognitive tests, but boast acutely developed social and emotional acumen?

Scientists and philosophers have grappled with these questions since the notion of hierarchical intelligence differences was first conceived. Together, Raymond Cattell and John Horn bifurcated intelligence into two distinct types: crystallized intelligence (i.e. knowledge amassed from experiential and fact-based education) and fluid intelligence, or “the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. It is the ability to analyze novel problems, identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and the extrapolation of these using logic.” Both intelligences intimately interact with one another, and both are malleable over time. However, fluid intelligence is somewhat more stable than its counterpart.

No matter how you define intelligence, one thing is clear: just as you can become “smarter” by studying deeply and widely, there are also a number of influences that might be making you “dumber.” In fact, “For the last decade, IQ scores have not just been leveling out but declining, and our collective intelligence has dropped by one IQ point in the last 50 years.” This purported downturn is related to a number of factors, but perhaps one of the most rampant among them is the prevalence of high-fructose diets.

In a UCLA study conducted over a six-week period, one group of rats consumed fructose water, while another group consumed fructose water supplemented with DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that “protects against damage to the synapses.” Before this diet began, all of the rats were trained on how to navigate a specific maze. When the rats completed the maze again after the six-week period, the researchers found that those who had consumed only fructose – and no DHA – performed significantly worse than the other test group. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, one of the study’s authors, elaborates, “The second group of rats navigated the maze much faster than the rats that did not receive omega-3 fatty acids… The DHA-deprived animals were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats’ ability to think clearly and recall the route they’d learned six weeks earlier.”

Furthermore, “Insulin had lost much of its power to influence the brain cells,” (a phenomenon known as insulin resistance) in the fructose-only rats. Gomez-Pinilla “suspects that fructose is the culprit behind the DHA-deficient rats’ brain dysfunction. Eating too much fructose could block insulin’s ability to regulate how cells use and store sugar for the energy required for processing thoughts and emotions,” ultimately proving detrimental to overall learning and memory. Of course, while one of the most important steps you can take for your health in general is to cut back on sugar, Gomez-Pinilla says that, “consuming DHA regularly protects the brain against fructose’s harmful effects… It’s like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases.”

This study adds to previous research that suggests eating a diet populated with fatty, processed foods in early childhood can have cumulative effects on IQ. A University of Bristol study found that, “Kids who ate junky fast-food diets at age 3 had a small drop in IQ at age 8.5, compared with kids eating healthy foods. The association persisted even after researchers controlled for other environmental factors that can influence IQ, such as parental education level, maternal diet in pregnancy, socioeconomic status and stressful life events. For each unit increase in processed food diets, children lost 1.67 points in IQ. By contrast, for each unit increase in healthy diets, children gained 1.2 IQ points.”

The phrase, “You are what you eat,” has been used with such frequency that it has nearly devolved into a stale platitude, but the nugget of truth buried beneath the banality still remains. By extension, if our brains are the seat of intelligence, consuming too much sugar could mean that our ability to think and to reason will begin to resemble its fuel: one-dimensional and artificially derived, deceptively substantial with none of the nutritive value.


-Written by Betty Vine


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