Feed your brain fat

A new study has found a link between monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) – found in olive oils, nuts and avocados – and general intelligence.

According to University of Illinois researchers, this relationship is driven by the correlation between MUFAs and the organisation of the brain’s attention network.

The study of 99 healthy older adults compared patterns of fatty acid nutrients found in blood samples, functional MRI data that measured the efficiency of brain networks, and results of a general intelligence test.

“Our goal is to understand how nutrition might be used to support cognitive performance and to study the ways in which nutrition may influence the functional organisation of the human brain,” said study leader Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology.

“This is important because if we want to develop nutritional interventions that are effective at enhancing cognitive performance, we need to understand the ways that these nutrients influence brain function.”

Inspired by Mediterranean diet research

Studies suggesting cognitive benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in MUFAs, inspired the researchers to focus on this group of fatty acids.

The researchers found the following:

  • General intelligence is associated with the brain’s dorsal attention network, which plays a central role in attention-demanding tasks and everyday problem solving.
  • General intelligence is associated with how efficiently the dorsal attention network is functionally organised used a measure called small-world propensity, which describes how well the neural network is connected within locally clustered regions as well as across globally integrated systems.
  • Those with higher levels of MUFAs in their blood had greater small-world propensity in their dorsal attention network.

Taken together with an observed correlation between higher levels of MUFAs and greater general intelligence, these findings suggest a pathway by which MUFAs affect cognition.

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