You may want to think about adding avocados, olive oil, and nuts to your grocery list, since a new study has suggested that the monounsaturated fatty acids in these foods could boost intelligence.

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Researchers have linked higher blood levels of MUFAs to greater general intelligence.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that higher levels of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) in the blood correlated with greater general intelligence in older adults.

Study leader Aron K. Barbey, a professor of psychology at the university, and colleagues recently reported their results in the journal Neuroimage.

MUFAs are fat molecules present in a variety of foods, including olive oil, avocados, canola oil, and a range of nuts and seeds.

MUFAs are considered healthy fats, as they can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by helping to lower levels of “bad” low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in the blood.

For the new study, Prof. Barbey and colleagues set out to determine whether or not the benefits of MUFAs might extend to the brain.

“Our goal is to understand how nutrition might be used to support cognitive performance and to study the ways in which nutrition may influence the functional organization of the human brain,” says Prof. Barbey.

“This is important,” he goes on to explain, “because if we want to develop nutritional interventions that are effective at enhancing cognitive performance, we need to understand the ways that these nutrients influence brain function.”

The study involved 99 healthy older adults. Blood samples were also taken from each participant and analyzed for a wide variety of nutrients.

“Historically, the approach has been to focus on individual nutrients,” notes Barbey. “But we know that dietary intake doesn’t depend on any one specific nutrient; rather, it reflects broader dietary patterns.”

All subjects also underwent general intelligence testing and functional MRI of the brain, which allowed the researchers to measure brain activity in certain networks.

The analysis revealed that general intelligence was associated with a brain region called the dorsal attention network, which plays a key role in problem-solving and goal-directed attention.

More specifically, the researchers found that a person’s general intelligence is influenced by the efficiency of small-world propensity in the dorsal attention network – that is, how well the neural connections within this network are organized.

Interestingly, the study results revealed that adults who had higher MUFA levels in their blood demonstrated “greater small-world propensity in the dorsal attention network,” and the team observed an association between higher MUFA levels and greater general intelligence.

Overall, the researchers believe that their findings suggest that increasing intake of MUFAs might be one way to boost cognition.

“Our results suggest that if we want to understand the relationship between MUFAs and general intelligence, we need to take the dorsal attention network into account. It’s part of the underlying mechanism that contributes to their relationship,” says Prof. Barbey.

“Our ability to relate those beneficial cognitive effects to specific properties of brain networks is exciting,” he adds.

This gives us evidence of the mechanisms by which nutrition affects intelligence and motivates promising new directions for future research in nutritional cognitive neuroscience.”

Aron K. Barbey