With Ramadan nearing its end, we’re sure you’re very much accustomed to fasting by now (but also relatively keen for it to end/ already regretting not having done enough). Over the past month, the discipline of the fast has hopefully allowed us to reflect on ourselves, think of those less fortunate, and bring us closer to God. Sure, it’s been tough, but it’s also allowed us to express the true values of our faith.
And, according to a pair of studies we were recently alerted to, the fast may have even sharpened our brains. Scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging have found that fasting in moderation can reduce synaptic activity in the brain.
Synapses are the connective structures that fire signals around the brain, so reducing their activity can allow them to, in effect, rest and reboot. In short, less food equals less synapse activity, which equals rested synapses and a refreshed brain.
Dr. Pejmun Haghighi, who lead the study, told Huffington Post: ‘Perhaps it’s a good thing that when nutrients are unavailable, an organism reduces neurotransmitter release and thus saves a good proportion of its overall energy expenditure.
‘We believe that tuning of synaptic activity as a result of acute fasting might be beneficial for people who are at high risk for neurodegeneration,’ he added.
The other study we looked at centred on a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin is produced by the stomach when it is empty, and its levels increase in our blood if we’ve gone without food for several hours. Previous research has found that ghrelin can stimulate brain cells to divide and multiply – including one where the hormone was injected into mice, which caused their capacity for memory and learning tests to improve.
Now, a team at Swansea University has taken this a step further by adding ghrelin to mouse brain cells grown in a dish. When the hormone was introduced, it caused the production of something called fibroblast growth factor – a gene known to trigger neurogenesis (that’s the growth of neurons in the brain).
If the introduction of ghrelin has the same effect on animals (not just their brain cells), this could have a number of implications. For a start, it would enhance your ability to create and retain memories due to the presence of newer brain cells. As Jeffrey Davies, who lead the study, explained to New Scientist: ‘These [new] neurons will fire more easily than old neurons, and they set in play a new memory.’ Secondly, it would have a significant impact on treating degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, as ghrelin also protects brain cells from dying.
This isn’t to say you should fast like it’s Ramadan 365 days of the year. However, it does suggest that restricting food for say, two days out of the week, could have long term benefits for your grey matter.