Consuming fructose, a sugar that's common in the Western diet, alters hundreds of genes that may be linked to many diseases, life scientists report. However, they discovered good news as well: an important omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA seems to reverse the harmful changes produced by fructose.
A range of diseases - from diabetes to cardiovascular disease - are linked to changes to genes in the brain. A new study by UCLA life scientists has found that hundreds of those genes can be damaged by fructose, in a way that could lead to those diseases. The researchers discovered good news as well: An omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, seems to reverse the harmful changes produced by fructose.
"DHA changes not just one or two genes; it seems to push the entire gene pattern back to normal, which is remarkable," said Xia Yang, a senior author of the study and a UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology. "And we can see why it has such a powerful effect."
DHA occurs naturally in the membranes of our brain cells, but not in a large enough quantity to help fight diseases.
"The brain and the body are deficient in the machinery to make DHA; it has to come through our diet," said Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and of integrative biology and physiology, and co-senior author of the paper.
DHA strengthens synapses in the brain and enhances learning and memory. It is abundant in wild salmon (but not in farmed salmon) and, to a lesser extent, in other fish and fish oil, as well as walnuts, flaxseed, and fruits and vegetables, said Gomez-Pinilla, who also is a member of UCLA's Brain Injury Research Center.
The research is published online in EBioMedicine, a journal published jointly by Cell and The Lancet. It is the first genomics study of all the genes, pathways and gene networks affected by fructose consumption in the regions of the brain that control metabolism and brain function.
Previous research led by Gomez-Pinilla found that fructose damages communication between brain cells and increases toxic molecules in the brain; and that a long-term high-fructose diet diminishes the brain's ability to learn and remember information.
"Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain," said Gomez-Pinilla. He recommends avoiding sugary soft drinks, cutting down on desserts and generally consuming less sugar and saturated fat.
Although DHA appears to be quite beneficial, Yang said it is not a magic bullet for curing diseases. Additional research will be needed to determine the extent of its ability to reverse damage to human genes.