Fatty acid levels rise when brains make memories

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Saturated fatty acid levels unexpectedly rise in the brain during memory formation, according to new research.

The work opens a new avenue of investigation into how memories are made.

Tristan Wallis, who works in Professor Frederic Meunier’s laboratory at the University of Queensland, says traditionally, polyunsaturated fatty acids were considered important to health and memory, but this study highlights the unexpected role of saturated fatty acids.

“We tested the most common fatty acids to see how their levels changed as new memories were formed in the brain,” Wallis says.

“Unexpectedly, the changes of saturated fat levels in the brain cells were the most marked, especially that of myristic acid, which is found in coconut oil and butter.

“In the kitchen, saturated fats are those which are solid at room temperature while unsaturated fats are normally liquid,” he says.

“The brain is the fattiest organ in the body, being 60% fat, which provides energy, structure, and assists in passing messages between brain cells,” Wallis explains.

“Fatty acids are the building blocks of lipids or fats and are vital for communication between nerve cells, because they help synaptic vesicles—microscopic sacs containing neurotransmitters—to fuse with the cell membrane and pass messages between the cells.

“We have previously shown that when brain cells communicate with each other in a dish, the levels of saturated fatty acids increase.”

The researchers found that fatty acid levels in the rat brain, particularly saturated fatty acids, increase as memories form, but when they used a drug to block learning and memory formation in rats, the fatty acid levels did not change.

The highest concentration of saturated fatty acids was found in the amygdala—the part of the brain involved in forming new memories specifically related to fear and strong emotions.

Pankaj Sah, director of the Queensland Brain Institute and study contributor, says the work opens a new avenue to explore how memories form.

“This research has huge implications on our understanding of synaptic plasticity—the change that occurs at the junctions between neurons that allow them to communicate, learn, and build memories,” says Sah.

This work is published in Nature Communications.

The research received support from National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council Grant.

Source: University of Queensland