Where you live changes how your brain works, scientists discover
Living in an impoverished area is bad for your brain as well as your waistline, a new study suggests.
Previous research has shown that people who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods suffer as a result of having less healthy food choices on their doorsteps.
But a new study from the University of California shows postcodes can even alter the microstructure of the brain.
US scientists found poor quality of available food increased intake of calories from foods high in trans-fatty acids.
This, combined with environments that do not encourage physical activity, disrupt the flexibility of information processing in the brain that is involved in reward, emotion regulation, and cognition.
Previous research showed that living in an impoverished area can impact brain health.
But for the new study, published in the journal Communications Medicine, researchers conducted a detailed analysis of the brain’s cortex to determine how living in a disadvantaged area can change specific areas of the brain that play different roles.
‘We found that neighbourhood disadvantage was associated with differences in the fine structure of the cortex of the brain,’ said senior author, Professor Arpana Gupta of UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.
‘Some of these differences were linked to higher body mass index and correlated with high intake of the trans-fatty acids found in fried fast food,
‘Our results suggest that regions of the brain involved in reward, emotion, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding might be affected by aspects of neighbourhood disadvantage that contribute to obesity.
‘This highlights the importance of addressing dietary quality issues in disadvantaged neighbourhoods to protect brain health.’
Neighbourhood disadvantage is defined by a combination of factors including low average income, low education level, overcrowding, and lack of complete plumbing.
Th study included 92 participants – 27 men and 65 women – from the greater Los Angeles area. Demographic and body mass index (BMI) information was collected, and neighbourhood disadvantage was assessed as to its area deprivation index (ADI).
Previous studies have found that people living in disadvantaged areas are at higher risk of obesity due to the poor quality of available food, increased intake of calories from foods high in trans-fatty acids, and environments that do not foster physical exercise.
Researchers in the new study focused on the relationship between ADI and neuroimaging results at four levels of the brain cortex to investigate in more refined detail the connections between neighbourhood disadvantage and brain structure.
Participants underwent two types of MRI scans that, when analysed in combination, provide insights into brain structure, signalling and function.
‘Different populations of cells exist in different layers of the cortex, where there are different signalling mechanisms and information-processing functions,’ said first author Dr Lisa Kilpatrick.
‘Examining the microstructure at different cortical levels provides a better understanding of alterations in cell populations, processes and communication routes that may be affected by living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood.’
The findings showed that worse ADI ratings were associated with communication changes in brain regions that are important for social interaction.
Other changes occurred in regions involved in reward, emotion regulation, and higher cognitive processes – and those changes appeared to be affected by trans-fatty acid intake.
Dr Kilpatrick said that, together, the findings suggest that factors prevalent in disadvantaged areas that encourage poor diet and unhealthy weight gain ‘disrupt the flexibility of information processing involved in reward, emotion regulation, and cognition.’
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