Without food the stomach produces ghrelin, commonly known as the hunger hormone. This results in increased levels of it showing up in our blood stream when we’ve been without food for a few hours.
While this hormone’s more obvious purpose is to increase our appetite, recent evidence suggests that in addition to protecting brain cells from the effects of ageing, ghrelin also stimulates the growth of new brain cells.
Fasting-based Diets Leading to Improved Mental Abilities?
Some people have reported an improvement of their mental faculties after adopting reduced-calorie diets such as the famous 5-2 diet based on intermittent fasting where the food intake is completely normal for five days a week while then being reduced to 500 calories per day for the other two.
Embarking on a permanent diet with a caloric intake of 75% of the recommended daily has several known health benefits, being commonly associated with the marked improvement in blood sugar levels is just one.
However, it must be said that these reports are not wholly consensual in the scientific community with some studies pointing to the contrary conclusion that these diets might actually have a negative effect on people’s mental capabilities.
In any case, Nicolas Kunath of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany is an expert in Neurology and Neuroscience who claims people shouldn’t expect to feel the benefits of a fasting based diet instantaneously, as it may well take more than a few days or even weeks for the new brain cells to develop.
Studies on Ghrelin Levels in Animals
Animals with low calorie diets have improved mental capacity, and the hunger hormone could be what explains it. Mice which have been injected with this hormone have performed better in memory based tests, learning faster than the control group. This cognitive improvement seems to suggest an increase in the number of neuron connections in their brains.
A team from Swansea University in the United Kingdom, led by Jeffrey Davies has uncovered new evidence relating ghrelin to higher brain cell stimulation via a process called neurogenesis which causes brain cells to divide and multiply.
As presented by Davies at the conference for the British Neuroscience Association, the ghrelin effect reported in animals could be linked to how our memory is improved by this hormone.
Implications for the Treatment of Neurodegenerative Diseases
Young brain cells are more likely to be influenced by new environments, which will then enhance their ability to form novel memories. According to Davies, this happens because new neurons will be quicker than the old ones to make those connections, thereby establishing the new memories.
This is particularly relevant for the diseases such as Parkinson’s, caused by a lack of a certain kind of brain cell. Older research by some members of Davies’ team has discovered that certain animals have been protected from developing a strain of Parkinson’s disease by ghrelin.
There is also significant evidence pointing to the fact that ghrelin and other similar chemicals can be used to form treatment protocols designed to tackle complications of Parkinson’s disease, as Amanda Hornsby’s study has found reduced levels of the hunger hormone in people suffering from a cognitive impairment known as Parkinson’s dementia.