Food for thought, food for mood, food for brains!

Below is my most recent post from PrintedScholar.

In another life I majored in biochemistry for three very long years. I eagerly and energetically switched my major to psychology after just a few weeks in a course on brain & behavior for non-majors offered through the psychology department. I’ve never looked back and I have spent every day since embracing my adoration for all things brain and behavior. Of course, my background in biochemistry has served me well over here on the behavioral neuroscience side of the psychology road. In particular, one of the most impactful classes that I did as a biochemistry major, and possibly ever, was a 200-level biochemistry course on nutrition. I would have most certainly pursued the nutrition side of biochemistry, if not for that brain & behavior course that led me to my present career in psychology, but I’m happy to report that my attraction to nutrition has assured a prominent position for it in the research I conduct in behavioral neuroscience.

As a behavioral neuroscientist trained and currently residing in a firm psychological perspective, I am, first and foremost, invested in understanding the biological basis of behavior. There are key behaviors that I am particularly interested in and they fall under two very large umbrellas: the cognition umbrella and the emotion umbrella. On the cognition front, I mainly focus on the biological basis of learning about and remembering places and things in those places. On the emotion front, I mainly focus on the biological basis of stress reactivity and behavioral inhibition (or lack thereof). Much is known about the structural, regional, and neurochemical bases of these behaviors and of utmost relevance here is the fact that supporting those biological and, thus behavioral, events is the ever important input of actual matter, stuff, ingredients, precursors, building blocks, *nutrients*. I’m talking about food.

I am often struck by how little attention food for brains receives. Sure, there are lots of folks “in the know”. But there are many that are not. So not. Even while mingling in scientific circles I often find myself struggling to be convincing about the importance of research on dietary factors and brain function. When I speak about the powerful and lasting impact of early life nutrient manipulations on later mental health and quality of aging, there is a persistent skepticism that I confront. I think what I find most odd about this is that these same skeptics would never hesitate to embrace findings on diet and “physical” health. I think most people understand that what you consume impacts your body—including, to name a few biggies, amount of body fat, metabolism, composition of our arteries, and the state of our liver or heart. How did the brain somehow get removed from the body?!

Tellingly, I attended a public advocacy forum during the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience a few weeks ago on childhood adversity and brain development. There were 4 or 5 panel speakers from a range of scientific and medical perspectives discussing the importance of enriched environments, educational interventions, and communicating science to policy makers. And other than one brief mention of it by one speaker, nutrition was alarmingly (to me at least) underplayed.

On a more personal note, I attended a workshop on grant writing this summer and the main exercise was to write a mini grant of just 2-3 pages that was succinct, convincing, and well-reasoned. I wrote mine on the nutrient, choline. This is the nutrient that I focus on the most in my research. It does a great deal of terrifically important things in the central nervous system: it’s a precursor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which has ramifications for learning, memory, attention, and mood; it’s a key step in a number of biological and chemical reactions that contribute to how cells are constructed and how they communicate; and it potently impacts the regulation of gene transcription. Choline is under investigation in many diverse research settings, from animal labs to hospitals, but overall is only being actively and comprehensively pursued by a handful of researchers nation-wide. What I find most fascinating about this work is how it appears to be acting in a number of different contexts (more on these below). This is what I decided to make the focus of my mini grant. Here was my gist: if choline can act in so many, seemingly diverse conditions, it might be moderating something rather fundamental to brain function, and wouldn’t it be important and generally impactful to a health institute to know that? And guess what? I have some neat ideas about how it might be doing this. I even have preliminary evidence for a few of them.

In this grant writing workshop we were told: make sure the impact of your work is clear. Times are tough. You need to get this up front and really emphasize the relevance and importance. Use stats! Use published sources! Show how *you* are the best choice to do the research you are proposing. I thought to myself: this is a breeze. The choline story writes itself!

In my lab we study the ways in which early life or young adult choline availability impacts risk for and prognosis with psychological disorders like depression and schizophrenia in rat models. We’ve already published two papers showcasing its antidepressant and antischizophrenic properties. And we have a number of studies under way that are yielding intriguing new ideas about the underlying mechanisms. Our work fits into a larger body of work in the field that I think makes a great case for more research. Yet, we are the only ones on the depression story at the moment. There are a couple other groups also investigating choline and schizophrenia but without the behavioral angle that we feature heavily in our work. This is great though, because our choline-schizophrenia work is unique but it is also converging on a similar conclusion arising from the work of others regarding choline’s benefits in this devastating mental illness.

Here’s the thing: From a psychological perspective it is fairly easy to see how there are some underlying commonalities in schizophrenia and depression and thus it may not be too surprising that choline has implications for them both. But then, regarding that larger body of work in the field, there is a lot evidence emerging on the capacity for early life choline to be neuroprotective against brain trauma like seizures, lesions, or neurotoxins. And choline given just after birth can rescue some of the deficits induced by exposure to alcohol prenatally. Choline is also showing marked rescuing of deficiencies induced in genetic models of autism, and Rett and Down Syndromes. Thus, my grant writing task seemed straightforward. Tell this nutrient tale. The impact was plain: these are debilitating disorders that together affect a very large percentage of Americans and finding out more about how a nutrient, such as choline, may act protectively, could have tremendous far-reaching implications.

For the record, I don’t necessarily thing that choline is the miracle nutrient either. I just think dietary factors are really, really important for brain health. Choline is one of many diet-related components in a number of processes and supplementing or subtracting any one of them can have implications for how the others get used. Ultimately, I think this story is incredibly complex, but absolutely worth pursuing.

What did the workshop leader and other attendees think? Not much. I guess I oversold it because the leader said that when he read mine it sounded smarmy, like a snake oil salesman. Step right up and get your choline! Well, the writing was on the wall. For me the critique was less about whether I had done a good job on the mini grant, clearly there was room to grow! What bothered me more was how comparing me to a 17th century charlatan speaks to the idea that what I’d “peddled” was “too good to be true”. I’m still not quite sure what to make of this experience, but I think I learned something important during that workshop. I just hope I figure out the lesson before my next grant goes in!

I will close this post by revisiting my main point: what you put into your body makes it up to your brains. And how your brain function affects YOU–your thoughts, your emotions, your decisions, your everything. You are your brain, your brain is you. Feed it well, my friends.

2 thoughts on “Food for thought, food for mood, food for brains!

  1. I really enjoyed this article because I am also very interested in nutrition as well as neuroscience. In the course Biological Basis of Behavior, we spoke about how consuming certain foods can increase the synthesis of certain neurotransmitters. Melissa stated, “Liver and Eggs…Breakfast of champions!”


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