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High-Fat Diet Causes Immune Cells to Eat Connections Between Neurons

First Posted: Nov 30, 2015 08:50 AM EST
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It turns out that a high-fat diet may impact more than just our weight. Researchers have found that it prompts normally bustling immune cells in our brain to become sedentary and start consuming the connections between our neurons.

In this latest study, the researchers looked at normal male mice. One group ate a diet in which 10 percent of the calories came from saturated fat, and the other group ate a diet that was about 60 percent fat. At four, eight, and 12 weeks, the researchers tested the mice for metabolic measures, and also measured levels in the hippocampus, the center of learning and memory.

The trouble seems to start with too much fat in the body producing chronic inflammation. This stimulates microglia to have an autoimmune response. Microglia, like macrophages in the body, are known for their ability to ingest trash and infectious agents in the brain, and their highly acidic interior gets rid of it, which helps support the function and health of neurons. But as mice become obese, their microglia become focused on overeating.

"Microglia eating synapses is contributing to synapse loss and cognitive impairment in obesity," said Alexis Stranahan, one of the researchers, in a news release. "On the one hand, that is very scary, but it's also reversible, meaning that if you go back on a low-fat diet that does not even completely wipe out the adiposity, you can completely reverse these cellular processes in the brain and maintain cognition."

The findings reveal that when it comes to a high-fat diet, obesity isn't the only risk. It turns out that cognition is also something that may be impacted.

The findings are published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

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