“The teen years are a very critical time for brain maturation, including how well (or not) we’ll cope with stress as adults,” said Dr. Johnny Figueroa, Assistant Professor, Division of Physiology, Department of Basic Sciences and Center for Health Disparities and Molecular Medicine, Loma Linda University School of Medicine. “The findings of our research support that the lifestyle decisions made during adolescence – even those as simple as your diet – can make a big difference in our ability to overcome every day challenges.”
The study, “Exposure to an obesogenic diet during adolescence leads to abnormal maturation of neural and behavioral substrates underpinning fear and anxiety,” investigated the impact of an obesogenic Western-like high-saturated fat diet on the development of brain areas involved in responding to fear and stress. Study findings demonstrate that the consumption of an obesogenic diet during adolescence has a profound effect on phasic and sustained components of fear in the adult rat. Notably, the rats that consumed the high-saturated fat diet exhibited more anxiety, problems with associative and non-associative learning processes and an impaired fear-startle response.
Startle reflexes, which are studied in humans and lab animals, have a prominent role in anxiety and PTSD research. In this study, consumption of an obesogenic diet during adolescence reduced the extinction of fear memories – a major impairment observed in people suffering from PTSD. In addition to not properly learning fear associations, the rats on the high-saturated fat diet incorrectly assessed the level of threat. This suggests that obesity and associated metabolic alterations may predispose individuals to PTSD-related psychopathology.