Mark Mattson Discusses Why Fasting Bolsters Brain Power (Transcript)

I mentioned ketones which come from burning fat and that happens during fasting. The Romans discovered ketones even though they had no – they hadn’t taken any chemistry courses, or didn’t know what it was.

People with epileptic seizures back then, they thought they were possessed by demons and they found if they take these people and shut them in a room and don’t feed them, the demons will go away. What’s happening is ketones go up and it’s well known that ketones suppress seizures and in fact ketogenic diets are used to treat even today patients with severe epilepsy. We’re doing in my work and my lab trying to understand why ketones are good for neurons. One reason is they provide an alternative fuel for the neurons that boost the energy levels in the neurons.

Recently we discovered that fasting by increasing BDNF levels in the brain, this neurotrophic factor, can increase the number of mitochondria in your nerve cells. And I’m not going to go into the details of this slide but the mechanism is very similar to the mechanism whereby exercising your muscles increases the number of mitochondria in your muscles.

The fasting is a mild energetic stress and the neurons respond adaptively by increasing mitochondria which helps them produce more energy and in this paper cited down here in Nature Communications, we recently showed that by increasing the number of mitochondria and neurons it can increase the ability of the neurons to form and maintain synapses and thereby increase learning and memory ability.

In addition to the increasing neurotrophic factors and increasing the energy neuronal bioenergetics if you will, we have found that intermittent fasting will enhance the ability of your nerve cells to repair DNA. So right now — and also probably exercise and also intellectual challenges.

And again what’s happening — in this case when you’re using your neurons, exercising your neurons causes a mild oxidative stress and at the same time that there’s increased oxidative stress the cells are enhancing their ability to repair oxidative damage to DNA.

Why is it that the normal diet is three meals a day plus snacks?

It isn’t that it’s the healthiest diet — way of eating pattern, and that’s my opinion but I think there’s a lot of evidence to support that.

There are a lot of pressures to have that eating pattern. There’s a lot of money involved.

The food industry — are they going to make money from skipping breakfast like I did today? No, they’re going to lose money. If people fast, the food industry loses money.

What about the pharmaceutical industries? What if people do intermittent fasting and exercise periodically and they are very healthy, is the pharmaceutical industry going to make any money on healthy people?

So one challenge for society and this — one of the other purposes of this TED Talks hopefully is that communication is the way to improve health. People understanding what they can do to improve their health and then taking action like Jeff talked about in his own talk this morning.

So I would urge you to communicate and spread the word that there are ways for people to be healthy. And maybe we can do this even with – of course I’m working for the NIH and one thing about the NIH’s we’re using your taxpayers money to try to help your health. We don’t have a profit motive. And so that really one of the main reasons I’ve got interested in things like intermittent fasting, exercise, trying to understand at the cellular molecular level, what’s happening in the brain is — this is a research that is uncommonly done and it’s not done at all by pharmaceutical industries and it’s done so much.

So I’m going to end with this slide and thank you very much for your attention and try it out. You can just play around with these kinds of kind of diets and you may find — what we found in our human studies though is it’s kind of like exercise. If you’ve never exercised before and you go and run three miles you’re not going to feel good.

If you eat three meals a day and all of a sudden you go whole day don’t eat anything, that they are going to feel irritable and ornery and so on. But it turns out if you can kind of force yourself to do that, maybe one day a week for a month and then two days a week, you get used to it and after a month or two many people can adapt to that kind of diet with no problem. And you’ll find on the days that you don’t eat so much, you are more productive.

Thank you.


About the Speaker:

Mark Mattson is the current Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging. He is also a professor of Neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University. Mattson is one of the foremost researchers in the area of cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

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