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diet foods bad for your memory?
Psychologist Tim Barth studies the effects
By Rick Waters '95
artificial sweetener aspartame (commonly found in NutraSweet and other
products) became popular as a sugar substitute, some weight-conscious
users have complained of memory problems and headaches that disappear
when they cut it from their diet.
has ever confirmed this link, but Timothy Barth, chair of TCU's psychology
department and an expert on brain injuries, got to thinking -- people
who suffer head traumas occasionally experience lapses in memory function.
Could there be a connection?
so. Immediately following an injury, the brain releases an excess of neurochemicals
that limit its ability to prevent toxic chemicals from accumulating, and
that can lead to additional brain damage. One of those chemicals is similar
to a metabolite called aspartic acid, which the body makes after taking
"So for anyone
who consumes aspartame right after brain injury, that might exacerbate
their behavioral problems," Barth says.
For the rest
of us, our memory concerns may be psychological. A person dieting because
of low self-esteem and anxious about memory function might be prone to
perceived memory problems.
has been controversial. NutraSweet-funded studies show no connection to
memory problems, while independent studies indicate otherwise. Barth believes
more study needs to be done with at-risk groups and long-term users.
To help sort
out the possibilities, his team gave 90 students a nutrition survey and
a memory questionnaire before they took short-term memory tests. Aspartame
users reported more memory problems than nonusers, especially forgetting
to perform a task at a certain time or forgetting a regular routine.
on short-term memory tests, such as remembering a word list, phone numbers
or a series of faces, everyone performed about the same.
most telling research was done with rats and their recovery after brain
injury. He found that rats fed aspartame struggled with daily sensory
motor tests while those that didn't take aspartame recovered in about
that after two weeks, the blood-brain barrier should be working more efficiently,
and the release of neurochemicals should be over," Barth says. "So we
hypothesized that if we administered the testing two weeks after injury,
instead of right after, there should be no difference in the groups.
tests confirmed this. "They seemed to suggest that aspartame may slow
down the recovery process, and if you wait long enough the behavioral
function may return to normal."
repeated the process with monosodium glutamate, which is similar in structure
to aspartame. Same results. Barth says that the three studies together
"converge on the idea that food additives, when consumed, may be a problem
right around the time of brain injury."
to publish his findings in the Journal of Neurotrauma but only after long-term
Barth at firstname.lastname@example.org.