Eating less may keep the mind young, according to Italian scientists who say they have discovered the molecular process by which a strict diet may save the brain from the ravages of age.
The research, published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is based on a study of mice that were fed a diet of about 70 per cent of the food they normally consumed. Scientists found the diet triggered a protein molecule, CREB1, that activates genes linked to longevity and good brain function.
Researchers have previously discovered that mice on diets showed better cognitive abilities and memory, were less aggressive and tended to avoid or delay Alzheimer’s disease
Skipping dessert and having an after-dinner coffee instead could also be good for your brain, as well as your waistline.
The news comes from an Italian study into ‘calorific restriction’ – the idea that near-starvation rations boost health and extend life.
Scientists have long known of the phenomenon, but have struggled to work out just what it is about severely cutting calories that improves health.
Researcher Giovambattista Pani decided to focus on a protein called CREB1 that is known to be important to memory and learning.
In experiments on mice, he showed that cutting calories boosted learning if the animals could still make CREB1.
He also showed that cutting calories boosts the amount of the protein made in the brain.
The animals’ calorie count was only cut by 25 to 30 per cent. In human terms, this equates to about 600 calories a day.
A cup of tea or coffee may also be beneficial, with studies crediting caffeine with upping the amount of CREB1 made in the body.
The research could help explain why residents of Okinawa island in Japan have more people over 100 years old per 100,000 population than anywhere else in the world.
The Okinawans eat fewer calories than the average person due to the cultural practice of Hara Hachi Bu – eating until you are 80 per cent full. This is through to reduce the number of free radicals produced leading to a healthier heart.
Dr Pani said: ‘It is just 25 to 30 per cent fewer calories. It is like not eating a cake at the end of the meal.
‘This gives us a tool to better investigate this brain circuitry and try to figure out more drugs that do the same.
‘We are trying a couple of compounds right now on animals but it is at a very preliminary stage.’
Keeping the brain young could be of huge value in an ageing population.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia affect more than 800,000 Britons, and the number expected to double in a generation.
Dr Pani said: ‘Our findings identify for the first time an important mediator of the effects of diet on the brain.
‘This discovery has important implications to develop future therapies to keep our brain young and prevent brain degeneration and the ageing process.
‘Our hope is to find a way to activate CREB1, for example through new drugs, so to keep the brain young without the need of a strict diet.’
LIVE LIKE AN OKINAWAN
The Japanese island of Okinawa has the highest proportion of centenarians in the world.
While genetics may play a role, those who leave the island and change their lifestyle habits have been found to die younger.
Here are some of the island practices…
- They eat until they are 80 per cent full. This is thought to lower production of disease-causing free radicals
- The have better bone density due to high calcium intake in diet and exposure to vitamin D in sunlight
- They consume large amounts of fruit and vegetables as well as good fats
- They stay physically active
- Psychological tests found they had strong coping skills, a positive outlook and a deep sense of spirituality