Your brain is full of fat

Senior moments could mean a lack of the right fat

When last did you walk into a room and forget why you walked into it? Or, put an item in a really safe place, and are still looking for it? Maybe you were introduced to someone last week, met them again yesterday, and couldn’t recall their name? The fat in your brain may be responsible for these "senior moments".

If you take out all the water, your brain is 60% fat! In fact, your brain has the second highest concentration of fats in your body. Your actual fatty tissue, in your bottom, belly and thighs has the highest concentration.

Special cells for special tasks

A neuron is a specialized cell that sends and receives electrical signals over long distances, within both the body and the brain. Neurons are found in very high concentrations in the brain – you have about 100 billion neurons!

These vast numbers of specialized cells are all covered in a fatty, oily membrane, called a neuronal membrane. This includes the membranes of the dendrites, axons and synapses, which are extensions of the neuron. This is why the composition of the brain is so very high in fat.

Special cells with special tasks need special fats

A healthy cell, including a neuron, has a supple membrane, which allows vital molecules to pass across unimpeded, similar to a bridge passing over into a new territory. When cells age, as well as when they are made up of the wrong kinds of fats, the materials in the membrane stiffen and become less flexible or pliable. When these bridges and tunnel-like structures break down, and stop functioning smoothly, the receptors on the surface of the membrane no longer communicate as they should.

The effects of such "hold-ups" in the brain are the so-called "senior moments" where you simply can’t recall the name of the movie you saw last week; sluggish thinking, such as difficulty learning a new task or recalling an old one; less restorative sleep and rest; lowered pain threshold; impaired immunity and even body temperature imbalances.

As neuronal membranes are made up primarily of fats, the same fats you eat, you can influence their structure and therefore their functioning. The quality of the fats you eat will directly influence the quality of the fats in your membranes, which directly influence the structure of these cell membranes and therefore their function.

The right kind of fats will ensure that cellular communication and hormonal signalling will occur optimally through, and on these membranes. The specialized communication that occurs between these complex cells is also dependent on the right fats. The wrong type of fats will impede these processes.

The wrong fats are bad for these special cells

Saturated fats, as well as damaged fats such as trans fats, harden membranes, leaving them inflexible and unable to respond quickly, to the various jobs they have to do. This ultimately leads to sluggish thinking, forgetfulness and slower thought processing, as well as general cognitive decline.

The wrong fats will also impede the permeability of the membrane, which will negatively influence the membrane's ability to allow important substances into the cell and allow toxins out.

Essential fats are the right fats for these special cells

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) on the other hand, ensure membranes remain supple and flexible. These specialized fatty acids provide membranes with a very high degree of elasticity and fluidity. Neuronal membrane elasticity is essential due to the millions of communication signals that occur continuously – signals that involve the release of special chemical messengers.

Researchers believe that one-third (and some researchers have said as much as two-thirds) of the fat in your brain is made up of these special essential fats.

The chemicals, or neurotransmitters that make these connections, need the membrane to be made up of the right kinds of fats and oils, as this allows them to do their jobs properly.

Specialised fat for great communication

It has been calculated that a single neuron can make up to 20,000 connections with other neurons. That’s an enormous amount of communication that you don’t want to go wrong!

The parts of the neuron that talk to each other have the highest concentrations of Essential Fatty Acids in the body and the brain. It is not surprising that research indicates that the correct mix/balance of EFAs enhances learning, by facilitating the smooth, consistent passage of these signals through these neuronal membranes.

Furthermore, as membranes are the working surfaces of every individual cell, their composition will influence every cell in your body, not only the specialized neurons in your brain. So you can look after your fatty brain as well as your whole body, when you eat the right fats.

References

Denyer GS. Essential role of fats throughout the lifecycle. Background: the renaissance of fat: roles in membrane structure, signal transduction and gene expression. Med J Aust 2002 Jun 3; 176(Suppl): S109-10.

Du Bois TM, Deng C, Huang XF. Membrane phospholipid composition, alterations in neurotransmitter systems and schizophrenia. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry 2005 Jul; 29(6): 878-88.

Erasmus U. Fats that heal, fats that kill. Burnaby BC, Canada: Alive Books;1993.

Peet M (ed.) Phospholipid spectrum disorder in psychiatry. Lancashire, UK: Marius Press; 1999.

Schmidt MA. Smart Fats – how dietary fats and oils affect mental, physical and emotional intelligence. Berkeley, California: Frog Ltd Pub; 1997.