When you eat could affect your long term memory

A late night snack might be something you like occasionally, and it might seem harmless when you’re eating it, but new scientific research has shown that eating at times of sleep can alter your brain physiology.

New findings have been uncovered in mice that suggest that people who regularly eat when they should be sleeping could affect that areas of the brain that affect learning and memory according to the journal eLife.

Much research has already been done into the metabolic effects of eating at inappropriate hours, and it is well-recognised to lead to a pre-diabetic state.  But this is the first report that demonstrates that there might be cognitive impacts too.

“We have provided the first evidence that taking regular meals at the wrong time of day has far-reaching effects for learning and memory,” says first author Dawn Loh from the UCLA Laboratory of Circadian and Sleep Medicine.

“Since many people find themselves working or playing during times when they’d normally be asleep, it is important to know that this could dull some of the functions of the brain.”

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The research results stress that these findings have not been confirmed in humans, but point out the fact that shift workers have been shown to perform less well on cognitive tests.  And the results were show to impact some learned behaviours more than others.

The most frightening result was a dramatic reduction in long term memory for mice fed when they would otherwise have been sleeping.  The same mice showed a significant reduction in the ability to recall recognition of a novel object.

Both these areas, the long-term memory and the ability to recognise a novel object are controlled by the same area of the brain, the hippocampus, which has an important role in our association of senses and experiences and their application to emotions.

Research showed that during an experience, nerve impulses are activated along specific pathways and, if we repeat the experience, the same pathways increase in strength. However, this effect was reduced when food was made available to mice during a six-hour window in the middle of their normal sleep time instead of a six-hour daytime window when the mice were active.

“Modern schedules can lead us to eat around the clock so it is important to understand how the timing of food can impact cogitation” says Professor Christopher Colwell from the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA.

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“For the first time, we have shown that simply adjusting the time when food is made available alters the molecular clock in the hippocampus and can alter the cognitive performance of mice.”

The research showed that eating at the wrong time also disrupted sleep patterns. The inappropriate feeding schedule resulted in the loss of the normal day/night difference in the amount of sleep although the total time spent asleep over 24 hours was not changed. Sleep became fragmented, with the mice catching up on sleep by grabbing more short naps throughout the day and night.

Have you ever been one to eat when you should be sleeping?