Ciara McCabe and Phil Burnet presented their latest research findings in a lively BAP-sponsored session at Cheltenham Science Festival last week. After giving an overview of different types of food that can affect brain function, Phil explained the surprising truth that the bacteria in our gut have the potential to alter our mood and behaviour.
He discussed his recent research showing that encouraging the growth of ‘good’ bacteria reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and decreases anxiety levels. The key to this effect seems to be the immune system: ‘good’ bacteria induce the production of anti-inflammatory molecules and it seems to be these molecules that alter brain function.
He concluded by highlighting that promoting the growth of these bacteria could be useful to maintain healthy brain function in ageing, as the immune system weakens with age.
Ciara then described her experiments investigating how chocolate influences brain activity. She found that even pictures of chocolate result in activation in brain regions normally associated with reward in people who crave chocolate: non-cravers do not seem to respond to pictures of chocolate in this way. Understanding how rewarding foods, such as chocolate, affect brain activity in healthy people could lead to treatments for not only obesity and eating disorders, but also depression, since the brain systems mediating reward appear to be dysfunctional in these disorders.
Following Phil and Ciara’s presentations there was a lively discussion encompassing what to eat to keep your brain healthy, if our response to foods is genetically determined and whether children might be particularly sensitive to advertising of unhealthy foods.
View full report on the festival (2.32MB)