How intermittent fasting changes your brain

A new study from Singapore found that intermittent fasting increases neurogenesis.

girl staring at half a cupcake
  • Rats that fasted for 16 hours a day showed the greatest increase in hippocampal neurogenesis.
  • If true in humans, intermittent fasting could be a method for fighting off dementia as you age.
  • Intermittent fasting has previously been shown to have positive effects on your liver, immune system, heart, and brain, as well as your body's ability to fight cancer.

Intermittent fasting (IF) is not new. Many religious traditions, including Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Orthodox Christianity have practiced forms of it. These methods were predominantly due to food shortages or spiritual pursuits. Today IF is most often promoted as a weight-loss regimen, and there is some evidence that it is useful in that capacity. One extensive review found that it not only helps with obesity, but also hypertension, inflammation, and insulin resistance.

Proponents swear by its efficacy. In reality, intermittent fasting is just about closing your feeding window: don't eat first thing in the morning (or breakfast at all), don't eat for two hours (or longer) before bed. It's a practical approach to eating, yet, as with everything in our time, it has to be packaged and marketed to be sold as a lifestyle. That's not to say that IF isn't effective. It's just not miraculous.

One honest debate that has persisted for years is how long to fast for. Twelve hours? Sixteen? Twenty? A new study, published in the journal Brain and Behavior, set out to answer this question with a specific goal in mind: how does intermittent fasting affect neurogenesis?

While neurogenesis is most active in embryos, neuron creation is possible throughout life. The more you can achieve this as you age, the better, especially in areas like your brain's hippocampus—the focus of this study. The main duties of the hippocampus is the consolidation of experiences and information as you store short-term memories as long-term memories and spatial navigation, which is another form of memory. In Alzheimer's disease, your hippocampus is usually the first brain region to suffer.

For this study, three groups of rats were tested, with a fourth control group receiving no eating restrictions. One group fasted for 12 hours, another for 16, and the final group fasted for 24 hours (on the second day they ate without restriction as well). All groups were given the same number of calories.

The three restricted groups all fared better in terms of hippocampal neurogenesis than the control group. Interestingly, the 16-hour group performed best, especially when tested for increased activation of the Notch signaling pathway—specifically, the NOTCH1 pathway (mammals have four). This pathway is implicated in the brain's ability to form new neuronal connections. This process allows us to form new memories, which is one reason why hippocampal neurogenesis helps to keep dementia at bay.

The study adds another piece to the puzzle of how diet—specifically in this case, when you eat—affects cognitive health. Judging by these results, it appears that restricting your feeding window to eight hours a day can have profound effects.

table with fruits and plants

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

The benefits do not stop with neurogenesis. As the Singapore-based team writes,

"Prophylactic IF has been shown to promote longevity as well as ameliorate the development and manifestation of age‐related diseases such as cardiovascular, neurodegenerative, and metabolic diseases in many animal studies. It has also been postulated that IF is able to cause changes in the metabolic pathways in the brain, which leads to stress resistance capacity of brain cells."

This follows up previous research that found intermittent fasting has positive effects on the liver, immune system, heart, and brain, as well as the body's ability to fight cancer. While specifics, such as fasting duration and caloric load, remain to be seen—most likely, those will have to be decided on an individual basis—this is another win for the IF crowd. Closing your feeding window appears to have many beneficial effects for overall health.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

Study: Unattractive people far overestimate their looks

The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.

Sex & Relationships
  • Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
  • The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness, while attractive people underrate their looks.
  • Why this happens is unclear, but it doesn't seem to be due to a general inability to judge attractiveness.
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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

Videos
  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

Personal Growth

Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.

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