New Research: High-Fructose Corn Syrup Sabotages Learning & Memory

A glass dish filled with yacon syrup
It’s hard to find a pantry without high fructose corn syrup. It’s in cereals, salad dressings, baked goods, fruit juices, crackers and even baby formula. And many of us grew up on it, sucking down the sweetener in pitchers of sweetened juice and eating it every morning in our breakfast cereal.

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A new UCLA rat study is the first to show how a diet steadily high in fructose slows the brain, hampering memory and learning — and how omega-3 fatty acids can counteract the disruption.

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The study focused not on naturally occurring fructose but instead on high-fructose corn syrup, a substance which is a whopping six times sweeter than cane sugar and commonly used in a wide variety of processed foods and soft drinks.

UCLA Professor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, co-author of the study, stated that the rats that were fed the sugary diet showed a marked decline in their speed as well as a noticeable cognitive decline.

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“Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information,” said Professor Gomez-Pinilla. “Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage.”

These findings are especially noteworthy since previous research has only been able to link high-fructose corn syrup to health issues including obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, and more. This is the first study investigating the repercussions of a diet rich in high-fructose corn syrup on the brain.

“We’re not talking about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants,” said Professor Gomez-Pinilla, in order to clarify the important difference between the types of sugars. “We’re concerned about high-fructose corn syrup that is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative.”

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Gomez-Pinilla and the other co-author of the study, Rahul Agrawal, said that the sugary diet actually changed the brains of the rats in the experimental group.

“Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats’ ability to think clearly and recall the route they’d learned six weeks earlier,” Professor Gomez-Pinilla said.

After closely inspecting the brain tissue of the rats, they discovered that the insulin present had likely lost a great deal of its power to control brain cells.

The researchers think that eating a diet heavy in high-fructose corn syrup could actually hinder the ability of insulin to regulate how cells store and use sugar, thus impacting the brain’s ability to process thoughts, emotions as well as its learning and memory-storage capabilities.

Thankfully, they said that working foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids into one’s diet could actually help protect the brain from the potentially disastrous effects of a long term diet consisting of a great deal of high-fructose corn syrup.

“It’s like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases,” Professor Gomez-Pinilla said.

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