CHICAGO, Sept. 11 (Xinhua) -- A new study by University of Illinois (UI) researchers found that monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), a class of nutrients found in olive oils, nuts and avocados, are linked to general intelligence, and that this relationship is driven by the correlation between MUFAs and the organization of the brain's attention network.
The researchers studied 99 healthy older adults recruited through Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, compared their patterns of fatty acid nutrients found in blood samples, functional MRI data that measured the efficiency of brain networks, and results of a general intelligence test.
The researchers found that general intelligence was associated with the brain's dorsal attention network, which plays a central role in attention-demanding tasks and everyday problem solving. In particular, the researchers found that general intelligence was associated with how efficiently the dorsal attention network is functionally organized using a measure called small-world propensity, which describes how well the neural network is connected within locally clustered regions as well as across globally integrated systems.
They found that those with higher levels of MUFAs in their blood had greater small-world propensity in their dorsal attention network. Taken together with an observed correlation between higher levels of MUFAs and greater general intelligence, these findings suggest a pathway by which MUFAs affect cognition.
"Our findings provide novel evidence that MUFAs are related to a very specific brain network, the dorsal attentional network, and how optimal this network is functionally organized," said UI psychology professor and the study leader Aron Barbey. "Our results suggest that if we want to understand the relationship between MUFAs and general intelligence, we need to take the dorsal attention network into account. It's part of the underlying mechanism that contributes to their relationship."
Barbey hopes these findings will guide further research into how nutrition affects cognition and intelligence. In particular, the next step is to run an interventional study over time to see whether long-term MUFA intake influences brain network organization and intelligence.
The study has been published in the journal NeuroImage.