Neuroscience, Brain Health and Nutrients

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Most people recognise that a decline in mental cognition is something that they want to avoid. Whilst healthy living, sleep, stress, exercise and other lifestyle actions are core to the health of brain function or cognitive aging, there is a steadily growing evidence profile that multivitamins (MVM) can confer a benefit, at low cost and high safety profile.

A research paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on the 18th Jan 24 indicates that daily MVM significantly benefits both global cognition and episodic memory. These findings within the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS) trial support the benefits of a daily MVM in preventing cognitive decline among older adults[1].

The study found that consuming a multivitamin-mineral (MVM) supplement for a period of 2 years had a small but positive effect on global cognition when compared to a placebo. The mean difference in change in global cognition score between the MVM group and the placebo group was 0.06 SD units (SU), with a 95% confidence interval (CI) of 0.003 to 0.13. Additionally, the study found that MVM supplementation compared to placebo resulted in a statistically significant improvement in episodic memory. The mean difference in change in episodic memory score between the MVM group and the placebo group was 0.12 SU, with a 95% CI of 0.002 to 0.23. These findings suggest that taking an MVM supplement may have a beneficial effect on cognitive function, particularly in the area of episodic memory.

Brain health/function and nutrients

The field of nutrition science, particularly its influence on brain function, has experienced substantial growth in recent years. The brain’s sensitivity to nutritional variations and dietary impacts is a result of its unique functional characteristics. Although it constitutes about two percent of an adult’s body mass, the brain accounts for over 20 percent of basal metabolic rate[2]. This high metabolic demand makes it especially vulnerable to oxidative stress and inflammation. Additionally, the brain’s glial glycogen reserves are limited and can be quickly exhausted, for instance during an overnight fast. This makes brain activity acutely responsive to changes in blood flow and glucose metabolism. The discovery of varied distributions of central glucose transporters (GLUTs) and mechanisms for insulin transport has significantly altered the understanding of the nutrition-brain relationship, highlighting the intricate connections between diet and brain health[3].

The continued exploration of the acute effects of nutrition on the brain has significantly developed from studies investigating the roles of basic dietary elements like fats and carbohydrates. These studies have largely focused on the administration of glucose and other carbohydrates. Notably, glucose loading has been consistently observed to enhance cognitive functions during mentally demanding tasks[4]. This improvement in cognitive performance goes beyond merely compensating for deficits caused by overnight fasting.

It’s important to note that consuming glucose in amounts sufficient to boost cognition (typically between 25 to 50 grams) is not practical as a regular nutritional strategy. However, this approach serves as an invaluable model for examining the immediate cognitive impacts of macronutrients as opposed to the cumulative benefit of micronutrients.

Glucose loading has also played a pivotal role in some groundbreaking neuroimaging studies related to nutritional interventions. These studies have explored its effects on both appetite regulation and cognitive enhancement[5],[6]. Interestingly, research in this area has advanced from merely observing the effects of glucose on specific areas of the brain during task performance. It now includes examining how glucose intake influences the communication between different brain regions during processes like appetite signalling and cognitive activities.

The explorative use of neuroimaging techniques to investigate the central neurological effects of human nutrition has led to remarkable discoveries. For instance, patterns of plasma nutrient biomarkers have been identified that can predict the efficiency of central neural networks and cognitive abilities. This innovative field of research has been termed “nutritional cognitive neuroscience.” It represents a significant paradigm shift in understanding how nutrition affects brain function[7],[8].

Looking to the future, there’s an exciting potential to adapt techniques used in pharmaceutical imaging to this field, an approach that’s being referred to by some as “nutraimaging.” Early trials using magnetoencephalography (MEG) have already shown promise. For example, studies investigating the anti-stress effects of theanine, an amino acid found in tea, have yielded encouraging results. These advancements indicate a burgeoning area of research that blends nutritional science with advanced imaging techniques to unravel the complex interactions between diet and brain function[9].

What’s ahead

Looking ahead, the prospects for the field of nutritional neuroscience appear quite optimistic, extending well beyond the current scientific landscape. A key factor contributing to this promising future is the noticeable absence of any new “blockbuster” pharmaceuticals aimed at brain health in this century. This gap in pharmaceutical advancements has catalysed a shift in focus within the industry towards the development of functional foods and supplements specifically designed to enhance brain health.

Organisations, such as the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) and its Mental Performance task force are one such organisation in this evolving landscape, as is the charity Food for the Brain in the UK. Furthermore, the growing public interest in health and wellness, coupled with an increasing awareness of the impact of nutrition on brain function, is likely to continue driving investment and innovation in this sector. This trend suggests a future where nutritional strategies could become a key component of brain health maintenance and enhancement, offering an alternative or complementary approach to traditional pharmaceutical interventions.

As research in nutritional neuroscience advances, we can expect to see more partnerships forming between scientists, food industry, and health and wellness organisations. These collaborations will be instrumental in translating complex scientific findings into practical dietary solutions that can be easily integrated into everyday life and will move us away from the highly processed foods so detrimental to cognition[10]. This holistic approach to brain health, combining cutting-edge research with practical application, will likely be a defining feature of the future landscape of nutritional neuroscience and clinical care.



[1] Vyas CM, Manson JE, Sesso HD, Cook NR, Rist PM, Weinberg A, Moorthy MV, Baker LD, Espeland MA, Yeung LK, Brickman AM, Okereke OI. Effect of multivitamin-mineral supplementation versus placebo on cognitive function: results from the clinic subcohort of the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS) randomized clinical trial and meta-analysis of 3 cognitive studies within COSMOS. Am J Clin Nutr. 2024 Jan 18:S0002-9165(23)66342-7.

[2] Pontzer H, Brown MH, Raichlen DA, Dunsworth H, Hare B, Walker K, Luke A, Dugas LR, Durazo-Arvizu R, Schoeller D, Plange-Rhule J, Bovet P, Forrester TE, Lambert EV, Thompson ME, Shumaker RW, Ross SR. Metabolic acceleration and the evolution of human brain size and life history. Nature. 2016 May 19;533(7603):390-2.

[3] Thorens B, Mueckler M. Glucose transporters in the 21st Century. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2010 Feb;298(2):E141-5.

[4] Macpherson H, Roberstson B, Sünram-Lea S, Stough C, Kennedy D, Scholey A. Glucose administration and cognitive function: differential effects of age and effort during a dual task paradigm in younger and older adults. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2015 Mar;232(6):1135-42.

[5] Peters R, White DJ, Scholey A. Resting state fMRI reveals differential effects of glucose administration on central appetite signalling in young and old adults. J Psychopharmacol. 2020 Mar;34(3):304-314.

[6] Peters R, White DJ, Cornwell BR, Scholey A. Functional Connectivity of the Anterior and Posterior Hippocampus: Differential Effects of Glucose in Younger and Older Adults. Front Aging Neurosci. 2020 Jan 31;12:8.

[7] Zamroziewicz MK, Barbey AK. Nutritional Cognitive Neuroscience: Innovations for Healthy Brain Aging. Front Neurosci. 2016 Jun 6;10:240.

[8] Talukdar T, Zwilling CE, Barbey AK. Integrating Nutrient Biomarkers, Cognitive Function, and Structural MRI Data to Build Multivariate Phenotypes of Healthy Aging. J Nutr. 2023 May;153(5):1338-1346.

[9] White DJ, de Klerk S, Woods W, Gondalia S, Noonan C, Scholey AB. Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an L-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial. Nutrients. 2016 Jan 19;8(1):53.

[10] Gomes Gonçalves N, Vidal Ferreira N, Khandpur N, Martinez Steele E, Bertazzi Levy R, Andrade Lotufo P, Bensenor IM, Caramelli P, Alvim de Matos SM, Marchioni DM, Suemoto CK. Association Between Consumption of Ultraprocessed Foods and Cognitive Decline. JAMA Neurol. 2023 Feb 1;80(2):142-150.


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