A host of disorders ranging from cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s to diabetes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder all have something in common — they are associated with changes to genes in the brain.
Now University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) scientists have discovered that hundreds of those genes can be damaged by fructose, a sugar that’s common in the Western diet. And that raises the worrisome possibility fructose may harm health.
At first glance, fructose seems like it should be harmless and maybe even good for you. After all, it’s a natural sugar found in many fruits and some vegetables, and we’re constantly told to eat plenty of those foods for health.
But consuming fructose in whole fruits and veggies that typically contain many nutrients and fiber – which substantially slows down the body’s absorption of sugar – is different from downing it in concentrated form. But that’s how Americans get most of their fructose.
Fructose is removed from food and processed to make sweeteners, adding calories to foods without much else in the way of nutrition. High fructose corn syrup is the most common form of fructose and found in products like soft drinks and many desserts. Over the past decade, research has suggested this form of fructose may play a role in obesity and may increase the odds of having heart disease and kidney problems.
For their recent study, UCLA researchers looked to see if fructose consumed in about the same amount many people drink down in sodas a day might damage health by impacting a fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is known to be essential for the maintenance of normal brain function, including optimal learning and memory.
The fatty acid is abundant in wild salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, fruits, and vegetables, according to Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery, integrative biology, and physiology, who headed the new study. "The brain and the body are deficient in the machinery to make DHA; it has to come through our diet," Gomez-Pinilla explained.
To test the impact of fructose on DHA, Gomez-Pinilla and colleagues trained rats to escape from a maze and then placed the animals into three groups. For six weeks, the rodents in each group took in different amount of fructose or none at all. One group drank water containing the equivalent amount of fructose a person would consume from drinking a liter of soft drink daily. The second group was given fructose water supplemented with DHA and the third group received plain water.
When the rats were put in the maze again, those who had been drinking plain water could still get through the maze easily. But those animals who had been given fructose-laden water showed serious memory impairment. In fact, it took them twice as long to get through the maze as the rodents who drank plain water.
However, the rats in the group that drank fructose flavored water that also contained DHA didn’t seem to have memory problems when they were put in the maze. The researchers concluded the DHA had cancelled out the harmful effects fructose had on memory.
Additional tests showed another big difference in the animals who were given the high fructose water without any DHA supplementation. They had far higher blood glucose and triglyceride levels. In humans, those factors are linked to obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.
But there was a more startling finding. When the researchers sequenced over 20,000 genes in the rats' brains, they discovered over 700 genes in the control center for metabolism (the hypothalamus) and more than 200 genes in the hippocampus, which helps regulate memory and learning, were altered in the animals given fructose flavored water without DHA.
True, this was an animal study, and not one involving humans. But the researchers pointed out that the vast majority of genes they identified in the rats are comparable to human genes in the way they interact to control inflammation, regulate metabolism, and influence cell communication.
Disorders that can be caused by alterations to these specific genes in people include bipolar disorder, Parkinson's disease, depression, and other brain diseases, according to Xia Yang, PhD, a senior author of the study and a UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology.
The UCLA study is the first to identify all the genes, pathways, and gene networks in the brain that are affected by fructose consumption. The research team also identified how fructose does its potential harm – it turns certain genes "on" or "off.”
The good news is that supplementation with DHA appeared to protect and reverse any harmful effects fructose had on the brain. “DHA changes not just one or two genes; it seems to push the entire gene pattern back to normal, which is remarkable," Yang said. "And we can see why it has such a powerful effect."
More studies are needed to find out if a DHA-rich diet can reverse damage to human genes, Young added. In the meanwhile, eating foods like wild salmon and walnuts, and reading labels to avoid excessive fructose, could be a smart – and healthy – idea. "Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain," said Gomez-Pinilla.
July 26, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN