Hungry people could be smarter

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: May 16th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Pen and paper? Check.

Books? Check.

Growling tummy? Check.

It may sound strange, but new research shows that an empty stomach may be one of the best learning tools students can bring to class.

Yale University researchers have linked a hormone that triggers feelings of hunger to memory and learning. This hormone, called Ghrelin [GRELL-in] could actually help your brain form new connections that help it recall stored information.

When your stomach is empty, ghrelin acts as a messenger to the brain, sounding the alarm that it’s time to eat. The hormone activates cells in the brain’s hypothalamus [hippo-THAL-uh-mus], causing those telltale hunger pangs.

But during its trek through the brain, the hunger-happy hormone also makes time to swing by a part of the brain linked to memory and learning. Here, the hormone seems to help build more synapses that allow the brain to transmit signals, boosting your memory-building abilities.

Investigators studied mice born without the gene responsible for telling the body to make ghrelin. Compared with other mice, these rodents were missing about one-quarter of the brain connections for memory and learning.

Researchers also discovered the number of these crucial connections increased when mice were injected with the hormone.

This finding could someday help scientists develop new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other memory disorders. But there’s still one tiny kink to work out… ghrelin triggers the appetite, potentially causing weight gain.

And bigger brain power aside, a bigger tummy isn’t likely to be what most people want.