Can fasting help unlock our brain’s capabilities? (Photographer: Rev 314159)
Science

Can fasting promote growth of new brain cells?

by Kat Pooprasert

Amidst all the countless dubious benefits regarding fasting, a new research shows that fasting might possibly boost brainpower. The hormone that stimulates appetite, otherwise known as ghrelin might promote the growth of new brain cells and protect them from aging. This might explain why some feel sharper and mentally faster during a fast.

Ghrelin is made by the stomach after a few hours of fasting or when the stomach becomes empty. This is a widely known mechanism of action and has been accepted by many scientists. However, there is new evidence to suggest that ghrelin can also enhance cognition. In fact, in animal experiments, it is discovered that animals with reduced-calorie diets have better mental abilities. For example, injecting this hormone into mice improves their learning and memory on tests and seems to increase the number of neuronal connections in their brains.

Jeffery Davies at Swansea University, UK have found that ghrelin can stimulate brain cells to divide and multiply. After this hormone was added to the mouse brain cells in a petri dish, it switched on the fibroblast growth factor, a gene that is known to trigger neurogenesis.

Davies described how this could be ghrelin’s mechanism on the brain and cognition. He says that young brain cells are thought to enhance the ability to form new memories as they are more likely to be activated by new environments and that “these neurons will fire more easily than old neurons, and they set in play a new memory”.

This new discovery might have widespread implications for treating various neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, which is mainly caused by a loss of a type of brain cell. In fact, previous researching, including some by Davies’ team discovered that ghrelin can help protect animals from developing a form of Parkinson’s.

In addition, Davies’ team discovered that ghrelin also protects brain cells from dying when they are encouraged to mimic the pathophysiology of Parkinson’s isease. Further, Amanda Hornsby, Davies’ colleague found that there was a decreased level of blood ghrelin in a study of 28 volunteers with with Parkinson’s dementia.

It has been known that in humans, a 25 per cent reduction in calories than the daily-recommended amount has several health benefits such as a better control of blood sugar levels. However, it is also known that fasting has controversial effects on cognitive function as some studies suggest that it actually impair people’s mental abilities. It is important to acknowledge that this research is still in its early stages and that the results remains largely inconclusive.

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