Food insecurity changes brains: What does this mean for children in challenging times?
The Sector > Research > Food insecurity changes brains: What does this mean for children in challenging times?

Food insecurity changes brains: What does this mean for children in challenging times?

by Freya Lucas

September 16, 2022

News of rising interest rates and increasing cost of living is dominating mainstream news coverage, highlighting families who are struggling to navigate rental crises, a challenging post pandemic economic climate and shifting priorities.


For some families, the change in circumstance is manifesting as food insecurity – the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food – many for the first time. 


The most recent Foodbank Hunger Report  said that more than 1 million children go hungry in Australia each year, making new research from the University of California, Berkeley sobering reading. 


Neuroscientists discovered that the effects of food insecurity in childhood and early adolescence can lead to lasting changes later in life.


One key difference in behaviour involved cognitive flexibility: the ability to generate new solutions when the world changes. The stability of the food supply when the mice used in the study were young governed how flexible they were under different conditions when they were grown up, leading researchers to believe that the same would be true for humans. 


“We (were able to) show that irregular access to food in the late juvenile and early adolescent period affects learning, decision-making and dopamine neurons in adulthood,” Professor Linda Wilbrecht explained. 


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. 


These studies, however, were confounded by other poverty-related issues, such as maternal depression and environmental stressors. The new study, using mice, was designed to look at the developmental and behavioural impacts of food insecurity in a controlled setting not possible using human subjects.


“I think that we have to understand that even transient food insecurity matters, the brain doesn’t just catch up later,” the Professor continued. 


“Food insecurity can have long-term impacts on how someone’s brain functions. The ability to learn and make decisions is something that’s developing during childhood and adolescence, and we are seeing how these critical skills are impacted by access to food.” 


The research, conducted with UC Berkeley faculty members Helen Bateup, Stephan Lammel and their lab colleagues, will appear in an upcoming print edition of the journal Current Biology


To access the findings online please see here

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