In a new study, researchers expanded on what those benefits are when they found that monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) are associated with improving cognitive performance and attention.
This study, published in the journal NeuroImage, observed 99 healthy older adults recruited through Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana. The fatty acid nutrients found in their blood samples were compared, the efficiency of their brain networks was measured through functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, and their general intelligence was tested.
“Our goal is to understand how nutrition might be used to support cognitive performance and to study the ways in which nutrition may influence the functional organization of the human brain,” said study and psychology professor Aron Barbey.
Barbey also stressed that this study is important because there is a need to understand how nutrients influence brain function, that is, if people want to develop nutritional interventions that are effective at enhancing cognitive performance.
Maria Zamroziewicz, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. graduate of the neuroscience program at the University of Illinois, explained how they examined the relationship between groups of fatty acids and brain networks that underline general intelligence.
“In doing so, we sought to understand if brain network organization mediated the relationship between fatty acids and general intelligence,” Zamroziewicz said.
The researchers were inspired to focus on this type of fatty acids because of the studies suggesting the cognitive benefits of the Mediterranean diet. (Related: Mediterranean diet can reduce memory loss by 24%.)
They examined nutrients in the blood of the participants and discovered that the fatty acids are clustered into two patterns — saturated fatty acids and MUFAs.
“Historically, the approach has been to focus on individual nutrients. But we know that dietary intake doesn't depend on any one specific nutrient; rather, it reflects broader dietary problems,” Barbey explained.
The study discovered that general intelligence was associated with the brain's dorsal attention network (DAN), which serves a major role in attention-demanding tasks and everyday problem solving.
Moreover, it was found that general intelligence was associated with how efficiently the DAN is functionally organized. It uses a measure called small-world propensity, which describes how well the neural network is connected within locally clustered regions as well as across globally integrated systems.
It was also found that those with higher levels of MUFAs in their blood had greater small-world propensity in their DAN. These findings suggest a pathway by which MUFAs affect cognition.
Barbey and his team's findings provide novel evidence that MUFAs are related to a very specific brain network, the DAN, and how optimal this network is functionally organized.
The results of the study suggest that the DAN needs to be taken into account in understanding the relationship between MUFAs and general intelligence as it is part of the underlying mechanism that contributes to their relationship, serving as a guide to studies in the future regarding how nutrients affect the cognitive function and intelligence of humans.
Aside from cognitive benefits, previous studies have found that MUFAs are essential in maximizing nutrient absorption in the body. They also help in reducing cholesterol and in weight management.