The findings imply that young individuals may suffer long-term consequences, particularly in terms of cognitive flexibility.
Few studies have examined the impact that feast or famine has on the developing brain in isolation from other variables that contribute to adversity, despite the fact that food insecurity is an issue for a rising proportion of the American population, made much worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
University of California, Berkeley researchers have simulated the impacts of food insecurity on young mice and discovered long-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 behavioral difference 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.