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Impact of diet-derived signaling molecules on human cognition: exploring the food–brain axis


The processes that define mammalian physiology evolved millions of years ago in response to ancient signaling molecules, most of which were acquired by ingestion and digestion. In this way, evolution inextricably linked diet to all major physiological systems including the nervous system. The importance of diet in neurological development is well documented, although the mechanisms by which diet-derived signaling molecules (DSMs) affect cognition are poorly understood. Studies on the positive impact of nutritive and non-nutritive bioactive molecules on brain function are encouraging but lack the statistical power needed to demonstrate strong positive associations. Establishing associations between DSMs and cognitive functions like mood, memory and learning are made even more difficult by the lack of robust phenotypic markers that can be used to accurately and reproducibly measure the effects of DSMs. Lastly, it is now apparent that processes like neurogenesis and neuroplasticity are embedded within layers of interlocked signaling pathways and gene regulatory networks. Within these interdependent pathways and networks, the various transducers of DSMs are used combinatorially to produce those emergent adaptive gene expression responses needed for stimulus-induced neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Taken together, it appears that cognition is encoded genomically and modified by epigenetics and epitranscriptomics to produce complex transcriptional programs that are exquisitely sensitive to signaling molecules from the environment. Models for how DSMs mediate the interplay between the environment and various neuronal processes are discussed in the context of the food-brain axis.

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