A study conducted at the University of Illinois has revealed that monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) which are a class of nutrients found in nuts, avocados and olive oils are linked to general intelligence. Additionally they discovered that this relationship is driven by the correlation of MUFAs and the organization of the brain’s attention network. Researchers know that nutrition is linked to cognitive performance, however they had not previously pinpointed what underlies the connection.
The study published in the Nuerolmage Journal, involved 99 healthy older adults. It compared the patterns of fatty acid nutrients found in blood samples, functional MRI data which measured the efficiency of the brain networks and the results of a general intelligence test. The goal was to better understand how nutrition could be used to support cognitive performance and to study ways in which nutrition might also influence functional organization of the brain.
The researchers studied the relationship between groups of fatty acids and brain networks which underlie general intelligence. The goal was to understand whether the brain network organization mediated the relationship between general intelligence and fatty acids. Researchers were inspired by previous studies suggesting cognitive benefits of the Mediterranean diet which is naturally rich in MUFAs. Nutrients in the participants blood were examined and researchers found that the fatty acids clustered into saturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids. Rather than focusing on single nutrients, the researchers wanted to focus on broader dietary patterns.
The study revealed that general intelligence was associated with the brains dorsal attention network which plays a key role in everyday problem solving and attention-demanding tasks. The scientists found that general intelligence was associated with how efficiently the dorsal attention network is functionally organized using a measure called small-world propensity which describes how efficiently the neural network is connected within locally clustered regions as well as across globally integrated systems.
What they found was participants 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 the findings suggest a pathway by which MUFAs affect cognition. The findings provide novel evidence that MUFAs are related to the dorsal attention network and how optimal this network is functionally organized. The results suggest that the dorsal attention network must be taken into consideration when understanding the relationship between MUFAs and general intelligence. It is part of the underlying mechanism that contributes to the relationship.
The hope is these findings will guide additional research into how nutrition affects intelligence and cognition. Further studies would involve an interventional study over time to see whether long-term MUFA intake influences brain network intelligence and organization. The evidence can certainly motivate promising new directions for future research in nutritional cognitive neuroscience.
Reference: Marta K. Zamroziewicz, M. Tanveer Talukdar, Chris E. Zwilling, Aron K. Barbey. Nutritional status, brain network organization, and general intelligence. NeuroImage, 2017; 161: 241 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.08.043