"Have you eaten your lunch with attention?" psychologist Lotte van Dillen asks the audience of over 800 people in the Leidse Stadgehoorzaal taking part in the afternoon programme. Before the coffee break, chairman Laura Steenbergen had already explained how caffeine would hijack the adenosine receptors in the brain.
'Food and the brain'. That was the theme of the LIBC public symposium 2017, held on November 27 in a packed room.
Every year, the LIBC, together with the Municipality of Leiden, organizes a public symposium on a theme that is important for a large group of people. LIBC does this because it is also the Centre’s mission to share knowledge and to contribute to the public debate, according to Steenbergen in her welcome speech. And healthy and sustainable food is also more prominently on the agenda in the Municipality of Leiden, said alderman Paul Dirkse.
There is an abundance of food news and tips in media and food blogs, but where do they actually come from? What do we already know and which questions are as yet unanswered, and what are the current hot topics in science when it comes to food and the brain?
Different types of research
Nutrition research is often hard to do (you can’t eat in an MRI scanner), complex (it’s difficult to unravel a whole diet), and very multidisciplinary, as soon became clear during the symposium. Large randomized trials are needed, even larger meta-analyses, and also animal studies, lab research into molecular mechanisms or careful 'first-time studies' with an MRI scanner to test the potential of a new idea. 'In news reports, there should always be something about the type of research and its evidential value,' said Nutritionist Astrid Postma from the Netherlands Nutrition Center.
The first 1000 days
The first three years after conception are a crucial period in a person’s life, as is becoming increasingly clear. This is especially true for the development of the brain. The brain is ‘plastic’ and grows quickly, and a shortage of nutrients such as zinc, iodine or iron in your earliest years can have major consequences for your cognition. But much research is still needed on the effects of specific substances, explained clinical psychologist Verena Ly. An example of her research is that she discovered in an experiment that new-born babies with iron deficiency could not distinguish the voice of their own mother from that of a stranger.
Nutrition and aging
Another interesting period that is the focus of a lot of research is ageing, as Marieke van der Waal and Eline Slagboom demonstrated. It has long been thought that after the age of 60 little health gain can be achieved with lifestyle changes, explained molecular epidemiologist Slagboom. That is not true. In a recent intervention study among 60- to 70-year-olds, she discovered that the metabolism can recover in three months by eating less and exercising more. "That’s something we didn’t know before!" Research with mice has shown that it is even possible to improve brain function in these animals.
Watch the film impression of the public symposium 2018 (in Dutch)!
Tasting with your brain
People taste not only with their tongue but also with their eyes, ears and above all their brain, psychologist Lotte van Dillen demonstrated. The fact that airplane food is less tasty is partly due to the constant background noise. And when we are multitasking we taste less intensely: we don’t even notice the difference if lemonade is made 50% sweeter, and we just drink more of it. One of her tips: create rituals around food, for example a ritual around eating a piece of chocolate.
Our second brain
A hot topic in science is also the microbiome: the billions of bacteria and other micro-organisms that live in our intestines. Intestinal bacteria produce substances that communicate with the brain and are therfore called our 'second brain'. They also have a major influence on the immune system. There are increasing indications that the microbiome also has sensitive periods and that the development of the intestinal flora is parallel to our neural development, said clinical and health psychologist Verena Ly. If so, we may also be able to intervene with nutritional interventions if things go wrong.
Become a better person through food?
Can you become smarter or more social with food and dietary supplements? It is possible, explained cognitive psychologist Laura Steenbergen. She herself showed through an experiment that tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin, can make test subjects in an experiment more generous. In this kind of research it is usually still about 'first-time studies' with small groups of test subjects, she warned. 'In the coming years, larger studies will have to be carried out in this area, with thousands of test subjects.'
Slaves of our reward centre?
Why can’t we keep away from sugar? Neuro-imaging researcher Jeroen van der Grond used an MRI scanner to research what happens in our brains when we drink a sweet drink. He saw that both the hunger and the reward area in our brain come to rest.
Yet we do not have to be slaves to our brain, food pharmacologist Renger Witkamp argued. As soon as we see and smell food, our intestines produce signal substances that go to the brain. Can we perhaps imitate them so that people are more easily sated and eat less, or can we make healthy food more rewarding for the brain? It has, for example, been discovered by chance that cannabis causes us to enjoy things and there are even indications that kitchen herbs have a similar effect.
Fortunately, there is also a lot that can be done without biochemical interventions, was the moral of the day. Moderate and healthy eating with lots of vegetables, combined with movement, works wonders for the average person and can reduce or ward off type 2 diabetes. Experiential expert and science journalist Niki Korteweg ate her way through her burnou on-a-better-brain-menu. And 'smart eating' also means thinking about the future of our planet, argued Koert van Mensvoort, who provided the audience with a future exploration with cultured meat.
Has this made you curious? You can visit the public day on 30 November 2018, about music and the brain (in Dutch).
Watch a video report of this public symposium: