Scientists find that visceral fat, a type of adipose tissue that produces high levels of inflammatory signals known as adipokines, impair learning and memory in mice by setting off an inflammatory cascade mediated by the release of IL-1 beta, which crosses the blood-brain barrier leading to chronic activation of microglia.
From the article:
“We have identified a specific signal that is generated in visceral fat, released into the blood that gets through the blood brain barrier and into the brain where it activates microglia and impairs cognition.”
Visceral fat as the ring leader:
They looked further and found that just transplanting the visceral fat caused essentially the same impact as obesity resulting from a high-fat diet, including significantly increasing brain levels of interleukin-1 beta and activating microglia. Mice missing interleukin-1 beta’s receptor on the microglia also were protected from these brain ravages.
To measure cognitive ability, the scientists looked at mice’s ability to navigate a water maze after 12 weeks on a high- or low-fat diet. They found it took the normal, or wild type, mice consuming the higher fat diet as well as the visceral transplant recipients with NLRP3 intact longer to negotiate the water maze. In fact, while they could reach a platform they could see, they had trouble finding one beneath the water’s surface that they had been taught to find. Mice with the interleukin-1 receptor knocked out, could find it just fine, Stranahan says.
The high-fat diet, transplant mice also had weaker connections, or synapses, between neurons involved in learning and memory. Mice on a high-fat diet but missing NLRP3 were spared these changes, like mice on a low-fat diet.