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Low-calorie sugar substitute consumption during adolescence appears to impair memory later in life > News > USC Dornsife

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Scientists using laboratory models find that eating FDA-approved levels of saccharin, ACE-K and stevia early in life may lead to several changes to the body, including brain regions involved in memory and reward-motivated behavior.

Diet soft drinks often use low-calorie sugar substitutes resembling stevia and acesulfame potassium, or Ace-K. (Image Source: iStock.)

A high-sugar weight loss plan early in life has been shown to harm brain function, but what about low-calorie sugar substitutes? A recent study reveals they might take a heavy toll on the developing brain and gut.

The News: In a study published Sept. 13 online within the journal JCI Insight, scientists on the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences show that adolescent rats that consumed the low-calorie sweeteners saccharin, ACE-K and stevia exhibited long-term impairments in memory.

  • The findings align with those from earlier studies through which the researchers show that adolescent rats that devour sugar suffer lingering memory impairment.
  • Consuming low-calorie sweeteners also affected metabolic signaling within the body, which might result in diabetes and other metabolism-related diseases.
  • Rats that consumed low-calorie sweeteners as adolescents were less willing to work for sugar as adults, but they consumed more sugar if it was freely available, one other factor which may affect the likelihood of developing metabolic disease.

Why It Matters: Advice on what to eat and when to eat it varies widely. Findings from studies like this will help consumers and clinicians make healthier selections throughout the lifespan, say the researchers.

“While our findings don’t necessarily indicate that somebody mustn’t devour low-calorie sweeteners typically, they do highlight that habitual low-calorie sweetener consumption during adolescence can have unintended, long-lasting impacts,” said Scott Kanoski, associate professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife.

What It Means for Humans: While most studies of low-calorie sweeteners deal with one substance and use amounts far exceeding the norm, the researchers made sure the study was according to real-life conditions for people.

  • Sweeteners tested include saccharin, acesulfame potassium (ACE-K) and stevia — that are commonly utilized in sweetened foods.
  • The quantity of sweetener consumed fell inside FDA-approved guidelines for humans.

In Their Words:

“Research using rodent models and low-calorie sweeteners has typically involved consumption levels that far exceed the FDA ‘acceptable every day intake’ (ADI) levels and used only a single sweetener. To design our research to be more applicable to humans, we kept consumption levels inside the ADI and used multiple low-calorie sweeteners to find out if effects were specific to a given sweetener or general across sweeteners.”

— Lindsey Schier, Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at USC Dornsife

The Experiment: To find out the effect of low-calorie sweetener consumption on memory, the researchers used methods that test object recognition and spatial recognition.

  • Rats were provided water sweetened with either stevia, ACE-K or saccharin or plain water, together with their normal food.
  • After a month, the rats’ memory was tested using two different methods — one tests in the event that they remember an object they’ve seen before and the opposite is a maze.

In the long run, rats consuming sweetener were less more likely to remember an object or the trail through the maze than people who drank only plain water.

What Else?

The scientists also found other effects among the many rats after they consumed sweeteners.

  • That they had fewer receptors on their tongues that detect sweet taste.
  • The biological mechanism of their intestines that transports glucose into the blood was altered.
  • Their brains had modified, specifically in regions related to memory control and reward-motivated behavior.

What’s Next?

Kanoski and Schier say the findings reveal more questions value exploring, including:

  • How do sweetener substitutes cause a discount in sweet taste receptors and the way does that affect later dietary behavior?
  • What does the change within the nutrient transport within the gut mean for health?
  • What biological mechanisms link sweetener consumption with the changes to the brain?

The researchers say they intend to explore ways to reverse the long-lasting effects of adolescent low-calorie sweetener consumption and to check the way it influences food selections and preferences later in life.

In regards to the Study

Along with Schier and Kanoski, authors on the study include Linda Tsan, Sandrine Chometton, Anna Hayes, Molly Klug, Lana Bridi and Rae Lan of USC Dornsife; Yanning Zuo and Xia Yang of UCLA; Shan Sun and Anthony Fodor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; and Emily Noble of the University of Georgia.

The study was supported by National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases grants DK123423 and DK104363; the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders grant R01 DC018562; and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship DGE-1842487.

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