Fatty Foods Enhance Memory By Same Mechanism As Emotional Learning

by | May 4, 2009
Go Nuts!

Go Nuts!

Have you ever noticed that some of your strongest food memories are of rich, fat laden meals shared with family and friends? According to new research, this may not be a coincidence. A study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that digesting fatty foods enhances memory consolidation using the same neural pathway as emotional learning.

This finding has far reaching implications for cognitive therapies to fight over-eating, but may also suggest new, easy to implement strategies for memory enhancement. Pistachios anyone?

In the study, rats being trained on memory tasks were administered a substance called oleoylethanolamide (OEA) that normally increases in the gut after the ingestion of dietary fat (not carbohydrate or protein). Several days later, the rats given OEA performed better on the tasks than rats that were not, demonstrating enhanced learning.

To determine the neural pathway involved in this effect, the researchers chemically blocked signaling in the region of the brain that receives neural inputs from the gut (solitary nucleus), which abolished the effect of OEA. Next they selectively blocked neural transmission between this region and another region of the brain that has been shown to be critical for emotional learning (amygdala). This also eliminated the memory enhancement effect of OEA, indicating that emotional memory and memory enhancement from fatty food ingestion share the same neural network.

These findings may partially explain the emotional component that is often associated with chronic over-eating, something that frequently involves learned habits triggered by emotional situations.

However, OEA does more than enhance memory. It is also critical in feelings of satiety after a meal (decreasing hunger) and has been implicated in controlling body weight. Is it possible this new information could be harnessed for the power of good?

Low-fat diets have proved to be a colossal failure for both health and weight loss, partially because they encourage over-consumption of starchy (usually refined) carbohydrates. Moreover, vegetable and fish oils are protective against many chronic diseases that plague Western culture. Regularly seeking healthy fats in your diet can help control hunger, promote weight loss and lower risk of disease. But it now seems that healthy fats could also be a useful tool in overcoming emotional eating, a problem more complex than the standard weight gain that comes from 21st century living.

Another interesting corollary of this study is that fat (specifically oleic acid, a healthy fat found predominantly in olive oil and nuts) may enhance learning and memory. Since the benefits of OEA were only evident when it was administered at the time of or immediately after training, the next time you study or prepare for a presentation you might want to have some nuts around to snack on. Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, pecans and pistachios are highest in oleic acid.

Are you interested in foods that could provide cognitive enhancement?

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8 Responses to “Fatty Foods Enhance Memory By Same Mechanism As Emotional Learning”

  1. TheNourisher says:

    Make sure you soak and dry those nuts. Avoid enzyme inhibitors which cause digestive issues. And dry at low temp to keep those lovely fats fresh. See Sally Fallon’s recipe and the Weston A Price Foundation.

  2. Mike says:

    I love nuts! Good to know they make me smarter too.

  3. Dienna says:

    Love this blog! Regarding nuts, I would like to see the recommendation to AVOID NUTS ROASTED IN OIL when promoting nuts for heart-health. The oils used are probably nasty to begin with, and if not, then they probably become nasty during the roasting at high heat. This may disrupt the beneficial fatty acid ratio the nuts would have provided.

  4. Matt Shook says:

    This is fabulous news…gives me another reason to continue praising almonds and cashews!

    Here is something that I did not see mentioned…is there a difference in the amount of oleic acid in raw/unprocessed nuts and cooked/processed ones?

    I wonder if processing almonds/cashews into nutmilk destroys these properties as well…hmmm.

    Great post!

    • Darya Pino says:

      I have not seen data on how processing nuts affects their fatty acid content. I imagine it harms it a little, but nuts have so much oil I wouldn’t guess a little roasting could any serious damage to the health value. My guess is these studies were done using processed nuts anyway. Not that you have to worry!

    • Scott says:

      I’ve always wondered about this too; It just seems like the more that the nut is cooked/processed, the less good it can be for you.

  5. James Pott says:

    In complete agreement, but you could have mentioned lard as another healthy fat especially when from pigs raised on pasture. Lard is in most cases for more than 40% monounsaturated (oleic). Higher than sesame, or corn oil, or walnut or flaxseed or safflower etc.
    The saturated part is not exactly unhealthy either. 14% is stearic (lowers cholesterol), myristic enhances the immune system, palmitic and lauric are both anti-microbial and anti-fungal.

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