A study by UC Berkeley neuroscientists found that mice who faced food insecurity during early adolescence experienced effects on their dopamine synapses in adulthood as well as their behavior.
With one in 10 households confronting food insecurity in the United States, this study sought to understand how experiences of scarcity and uncertainty affect the developmental process of a young brain.
“Food insecurity is also known to negatively impact educational achievement, mental (health), and obesity risk, but we do not know why and how,” said campus psychology professor Linda Wilbrecht in an email. “In kids, food insecurity is often correlated with other aspects of adversity such as maternal depression, which can also impact brain development and we can not easily disentangle the two.”
According to Wilbrecht, mice were used as test subjects in order to isolate their feeding experience and hold other elements, such as genetics, constant. The use of mice allowed the researchers to closely study how their feeding experience affects brain function and further understand how facing food insecurity can elevate health risks.
What the researchers found not only varied based on the mice’s access to food, but by sex as well.
“Male mice that grew up with differential access to food behaved differently in adulthood,” Wilbrecht said in an email. “In particular, feeding experience affected how male mice handled making errors and how flexible they were after making an error in a learning and decision making task.”
In contrast, food insecurity in female mice did not impact how they responded to errors, but instead impacted their body weight as adults, according to Wilbrecht. Female mice who encountered food insecurity were significantly heavier after their adolescent period than the female mice who had steady access to food.
From a neurological perspective, the researchers found that the synapses of neurons that release dopamine were altered in at least two parts of the brain in the mice who were exposed to food insecurity, added Wilbrecht.
“We hope the data will help people realize the seriousness of even transient food insecurity in children,” Wilbrecht said in an email. “This should help support the continuation and extension of food programs, especially those that seek to feed youth.”
The next step for this research, according to Wilbrecht, is understanding whether facing food insecurity during the developmental stage of a person’s life creates vulnerability toward substance abuse and metabolic alteration. The researchers also hope to examine the difference in the impact of food insecurity experienced in later stages of development.
Wilbrecht said she hopes their data will inspire agencies to offer benefits more frequently to help in balancing the cycles of feast and famine, which occur when aid is given out infrequently.