During the long seafaring voyages of the 15th and 16th centuries, a period known as the Age of Discovery, sailors reported experiencing visions of sublime foods and verdant fields. The discovery that these were nothing more than hallucinations after months at sea was agonizing. Some sailors wept in longing; others threw themselves overboard.
The cure for these harrowing mirages turned out to be not a concoction of complex chemicals, as once suspected, but rather the simple antidote of lemon juice. These sailors suffered from scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, an essential micronutrient that people acquire from eating fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin C is important for the production and release of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the brain. In its absence, brain cells do not communicate effectively with one another, which can lead to hallucinations.
As this famous example of early explorers illustrates, there is an intimate connection between food and the brain, one that researchers like me are working to unravel. As a scientist who studies the neuroscience of nutrition at the University of Michigan, I am primarily interested in how components of food and their breakdown products can alter the genetic instructions that control our physiology.
Beyond that, my research is also focused on understanding how food can influence our thoughts, moods and behaviors. While we can’t yet prevent or treat brain conditions with diet, researchers like me are learning a great deal about the role that nutrition plays in the everyday brain processes that make us who we are.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a delicate balance of nutrients is key for brain health: Deficiencies or excesses in vitamins, sugars, fats and amino acids can influence brain and behavior in either negative or positive ways.