Food insecurity has lasting impacts on the brains and behavior of mice: Results suggest young people may suffer long-term consequences, in particular in the area of cognitive flexibility

While food insecurity is a problem for a growing segment of the U.S. population — made even worse by the coronavirus pandemic — few studies have looked at the effect that feast or famine has on the developing brain in isolation from other factors that contribute to adversity.

A new study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, simulated the effects of food insecurity in juvenile mice and found lasting changes later in life.

“We show that irregular access to food in the late juvenile and early adolescent period affects learning, decision-making and dopamine neurons in adulthood,” said Linda Wilbrecht, UC Berkeley professor of psychology and member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

One key difference in behavior involved cognitive flexibility: the ability to generate new solutions when the world changes.

“Mice searching for rewards might be inflexible, sticking to only one strategy even when it no longer yields a reward, or they might be flexible and quickly try out new strategies. We found that the stability of the food supply mice had when they were young governed how flexible they were under different conditions when they were grown up,” she said.

Epidemiological studies have linked food insecurity in children and adolescents with weight gain in later life, as well as learning problems and lower scores in mathematics, reading and vocabulary. But these studies are confounded by other poverty-related issues, such as maternal depression and environmental stressors. The new study was designed to look at the developmental and behavioral impacts of food insecurity in a controlled setting not possible using human subjects.

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