for National Geographic News
Feeling forgetful? Munch on a fatty snack.
A hormone released during the digestion of certain fats triggers long-term memory formation in rats, a new study says.
Researchers found that administering a compound produced in the small intestine called oleoylethanolamide (OEA) to rats improved memory retention during two different tasks.
When cell receptors activated by OEA were blocked, the animals' performance decreased.
Though the study involved rats, OEA's effects should be similar in other animals, including humans, said study team member Daniele Piomelli, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine.
Follow the Fat
The team suspects OEA's memory-enhancing activity likely evolved to help animals remember where and when they ate a fatty meal, so they could return to that spot later.
(Related: "Memory Aids Birds in Migration, Study Finds".)
Fats are crucial for a variety of biological functions and structures. While the modern human diet is now rich in fats, such foods are actually rare in nature.
"It makes sense that nature evolved a system for strengthening memories associated with the places and context where fats are gathered," Piomelli told National Geographic News.
While Piomelli doesn't recommend that people binge on fast food to improve memory, his team's findings could explain why kids who eat breakfast and mid-morning snacks generally perform better in school.
"Studies show that it's not because they learn better, but because they remember better," Piomelli said.
In the future, scientists could use OEA or OEA-like compounds as medicines to boost memory or treat diseases that affect memory.
(Explore an interactive brain.)
"One idea would be to [use drugs] to activate the same receptor that OEA activates, or perhaps give nutrition that produces enough OEA to cause the same [memory] effect," Piomelli said.
The research is detailed this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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