The New Brain

How your brain—and our understanding of it—are constantly changing.

Cognitive Enhancement Without Drugs

Breakfast boosts brain power

Everyone would like to increase their mental performance.  A new study shows a simple way to boost cognitive performance markedly without resorting to cognitive enhancing drugs or sweating over difficult mental exercises to strengthen your grey matter.  Simply eat your breakfast!  Breakfast boosts memory and attention significantly, according to a new study of 1386 school children aged 6-16 years.  

The researchers, Keith Wesnes, Claire Pinock and Andrew Scholey, tested school children in the United Kingdom before breakfast at 8:00 am and again at hourly intervals from 9:00 am until 12:00 pm.  They found that students who had eaten breakfast scored significantly higher in tests measuring attention.  In this test, numbers between 1 and 9 were randomly shown on the right side of a computer screen and students were required to press the “L” key on a keyboard when the same digit appeared momentarily at the center of the screen.  7% fewer matching numbers were detected and 23% more false pairs were made by the children who had skipped breakfast that morning.  One wonders how this might translate into lower scores on a math test for example. 

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Quickness of thought (reaction speed in answering choice questions) was faster than for children with empty stomachs, and memory was improved in those who had eaten breakfast.  The ability to correctly recognize a picture that had been shown to them previously was impaired by 9% and reaction slowed time decreased by about the same amount in the group of school kids who skipped breakfast that morning.  Together the results of this study show that memory, speed of thought, and attention are all reduced in the group of children who skipped breakfast.

Although the results of the study are clear, caution is necessary in interpreting them, because the findings are a simple correlation.  It is not possible to conclude that it was the breakfast meal itself that boosted mental performance in these children, because other factors common to the group of children who skipped breakfast, such as socio-economic status, parental care or home life environment, could have affected cognitive ability or test performance.  However, there are strong hints in the data suggesting that the breakfast itself contributed to the positive effect on mental performance--the test scores for kids who had skipped breakfast got steadily worse throughout the morning compared to children who had not come to school hungry that day.   In fact, the differences between the two groups of children were quite small but still statistically significant in the earliest tests given between 8 and 10 am, but by noon the differences had grown substantially. 

It was not necessary to eat a large meal or consume a very special diet to enhance cognitive performance.  Even a light breakfast cereal reduced the mental deficit seen in kids who skipped breakfast by more than half.  Interestingly, the researchers found no association between caffeine consumption and mental performance on these tests. 

The researchers clearly state in their paper published in the journal Appetite that they were approached by the Home Grown Cereals Association in the UK to undertake this study.

So, before you spring for a tutor to help your children at school, make sure they eat their breakfast, and that you do the same yourself if you want to be mentally sharp.

 

Reference

K.A. Wesnes, C. Pinock, A. Scholey (2012)  Breakfast is associated with enhanced cognitive function in schoolchildren.  An internet based study.  Appetite 59, 646-649.

 

 

 

 

 

 

R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D., is the Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the author of The Other Brain. more...

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