Could Daily Sugar Consumption in Children Impact Brain Function as in Adulthood?

Most of us grew up with sugary treats, at least on special occasions. No doubt that sweet taste can create happy feelings and a sense of reward as we enjoy our favorite indulgences. However, kids consume more products with added sugar than any demographic. This had some researchers wondering if a child’s sugar intake impacts their brain function in adulthood. Here’s what they found. (1)

Sugar And Children Study

According to a study by the University of Georgia and a University of Southern California research group, daily consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by adolescents can pose a risk for impaired memory function. The study conducted on rats, showed that subjects that consumed the sweet drinks experienced difficulty when performing learning and memory tasks as adults. (1)

Interestingly, the study also tied changes in gut bacteria to the possible cause of sugar-induced memory impairment. To explore this possibility the researchers enriched the guts of the animals that didn’t consume sugar with bacteria called Parabacteroides. They found these subjects experienced similar memory deficits. (1)

Gut Bacteria And Memory 

“Early life sugar increased Parabacteroides levels, and the higher the levels of Parabacteroides, the worse the animals did in the task,” says Emily Noble, assistant professor in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences and first author of the research paper. “We found that the bacteria alone were sufficient to impair memory in the same way as sugar, but it also impaired other types of memory functions as well.” (1)

Acceptable Levels For Sugar And Children

When considering how much sugar is acceptable, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommends less than 10 percent of a person’s calories per day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Americans aged 9-18 actually get most of their calories from sugar-sweetened beverages. (1)

The study wanted to understand how a high-sugar diet might impact the hippocampus. This area of the brain is important for many cognitive functions. The study looked at possible vulnerabilities to the hippocampus because it is still developing well into our late adolescence. (1)

Rats And Memory

In the case of the rats, when given an 11% sugar solution along with their usual meal their memories were impaired. Their tasks included a hippocampus-dependent memory task that measured episodic contextual memory. This is how we remember the context of seeing a familiar object in the past. (1)

“We found that rats that consumed sugar in early life had an impaired capacity to discriminate that an object was novel to a specific context, a task the rats that were not given sugar were able to do,” says Noble. (1)

The rats were also tasked with basic recognition memory tests. This is another memory function dependent on the hippocampus. In this case the rats were tested to see how well they did at recognizing previous items they were shown. However, in this case, the sugar did not affect the memory. (1)

“Early life sugar consumption seems to selectively impair their hippocampal learning and memory,” says Noble. (1)

Sugar And Gut Bacteria

Circling back to gut bacteria, analyses showed high sugar consumption elevated levels of Parabacteroides. They increased levels of Parabacteroides in rats that didn’t consume sugar and they showed impairments in both hippocampal dependent and hippocampal-independent memory tasks. “(The bacteria) induced some cognitive deficits on its own,” says Noble. However, the research wasn’t conclusive in showing the specific pathways used for gut-brain signaling. (1)

“Identifying how the bacteria in the gut are impacting brain development will tell us about what sort of internal environment the brain needs in order to grow in a healthy way,” says Noble. (1)



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